About Chet Burger
Chester Burger spent most of his 48-year working career in the communications field, establishing many "firsts." After he retired in 1988 from Chester Burger & Co., Inc., he became counsel to James E. Arnold Consultants, Inc., the successor firm. In 1995, the U.S. Government awarded him the 'Medal For Outstanding Service to the United States."
Chester Burger & Co., Inc. was the nation's first communications management consulting firm. During a 24-year period, his clients included American Bankers Association, Sears Roebuck, Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing, Communications Satellite Corporation, American Cancer Society, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Texas Instruments, Inc. and Bell Canada.
Burger joined the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1941 as a page boy, and left in 1955 as National Manager of CBS Television News. During World War II, he served with the U. S. Army Air Force. After V-J Day, the Army assigned him to experiment with newly-developed television. He produced the Army’s first broadcasts.
He returned to CBS as a visualizer, developing methods for reporting world news on TV news broadcasts then beginning. In April 1946, he became the nation's first television news reporter. He was first president of the Radio-Newsreel-Television Working Press Association of New York.
After entering the public relations field, he became president of Communications Counselors, Inc. In 1955, he became a consultant to the management of AT&T, a relationship that lasted 33 years until his retirement. The Telephone Pioneers of America elected him an Honorary Member for "outstanding service to the telephone industry.''
During the years of the civil rights campaigns, Burger served as an officer and member of the Board of Trustees of the National Urban League. The United Negro College Fund awarded him its Distinguished Service Citation. He was a founder of the Black Executive Exchange Program, and received the Outstanding Mentor Award "for 21 years of counsel and support to minorities in public relations." He is a Life Member of the NAACP.
The United States Information Agency presented Burger with its Award for Outstanding Service to America's public diplomacy efforts. The Public Relations Society of America gave its highest award, the Gold Anvil, and its Counselors Academy designated him "The Counselors' Counselor and its first Life Member. The United States Marine Corps awarded him its first Drew Middleton Public Affairs Award for Distinguished Service.
Burger served as an advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs. He was also Chairman of the Board of Directors of Choice in Dying, Inc. He was a member of the White House Health Project Task Force in 1992, and an Expert Advisor to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. He was a member of the Board of Directors of Union Theological Seminary, was an ordained Elder of Central Presbyterian Church in New York and was President of its Board of Trustees.
He authored six books on management subjects, including "The Chief Executive." His lifetime work in photography was acquired for the permanent collections of the New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library. His lifetime papers are in the Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin.
BURGER, CHESTER, retired management consultant; b. Brooklyn, N.Y., Jan. 10, 1921; dec. New York, N.Y., Mar. 22, 2011; s. Benjamin W. and Terese (Felleman) B.; m. Hannah Kaufman, Jan. 30, 1948; children: Jeffrey Allen, Todd Oliver, Amy Louise; m. Ninki Hart, Jan. 9, 1959 (dec. Jan. 1969); m. Elisabeth Miller Owen, Sept. 2, 1971.
1946 BA, Brooklyn College
1941-1942 with CBS Radio
1946-1948 1st U.S. TV reporter, visualizer, CBS TV News
1948-1950 asst. news editor, CBS-TV
1950-1952 news editor. CBS-TV
1952-1953 film assignment editor, CBS-TV
1953 national manager, CBS-TV News
1954-1955 writer-producer, Omnibus program, Ford Foundation
1955 consultant, Life magazine
1955-1988 public relations dept., AT&T (and associated companies)
1955-1957 public relations counsel, asst. to president, Ruder and Finn, Inc.
1957-1960 v.p., plans, Ruder and Finn, Inc.
1960-1962 president, Communications Counselors (public relations division, Interpublic, Inc.), New York, N.Y.
1963-1965 president, Echelons Office Temporaries, Inc. (and associated companies)
1964-1988 president, Chester Burger & Co., Inc. (management consulting)
1988-1990 senior cons., Chester Burger & Co., Inc.
1991- 2000 counsel, James E. Arnold Consultants, Inc., New York, N.Y.
1964-1965 consultant, Coca-Cola Export Corp.
1967 guest lecturer, New School for Social Research
1969-1972 guest lecturer, University of Michigan Graduate School of Business Administration
1970-1976 guest lecturer, NYU Division of Business and Management
1970 guest lecturer, Dalhousie University
1973-1985 consultant, American Bankers Association
1974 consultant, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
1986 consultant, AARP
1986-1988 consultant, American Cancer Society
1994 consultant, The Carter Center, Atlanta; lecturer public relations role in management
1964 “Survival in the Executive Jungle”
1966 “Executives Under Fire"
1969 “Executive Etiquette”
1972 “Walking the Executive Plank” (also published as “Creative Firing”)
1978 “The Chief Executive”
1984, 1988 Inside Public Relations, also articles
1953, 1954, 1955 Mike and Screen Press Directory
1972-1974 Persuasion (monthly newsletter)
1975-1979 editorial advisory board Public Relations Journal
1959-1988 Quarterly Review of Public Relations (name now Public Relations Quarterly)
1967-1968 Popular Photography magazine
Board of Directors
1965-1968 N.Y. Interracial Council for Business Opportunity
1964-1967 N.Y. Diabetes Association
1973-1976 National Comm. Council for Human Services
1993-1996 Choice in Dying, Inc.; treasurer 1996; national chairman, 1999
1990-1994 Union Theological Seminary, N.Y.C.
1967-1976 secretary, executive committee, trustee, National Urban League
1962-1963 public relations chairman, Young Pres. Org.
1969-1985 adv. com., Black Executive Exchange Program
1981-1986 1st v.p. National Urban League Development Foundation, Inc.
1981-1986 mem. private sector adv. comm., U. S. Information Agency
1982-1988 national advisory council, Connecticut College
1989-1994 advisory council, Project Orbis
1984-2011 president, board of trustees, elder Central Presbyterian Church, City of N.Y.
1992 member, White House Health Project Task Force
1993-2011 advisory board, Population Comm. International
1996-1988 board advisor, Medicare Rights Center
Awards and Citations
1974 Distinguished Service citation, United Negro College Fund
1982 Outstanding Service, U. S. Information Agency
1991 1st Drew Middleton Public Affairs award, U. S. Marine Corps
1995 Awarded medal for Outstanding Service to the U. S. by U. S. Government
1988 named Counselors Counselor and Life Member, Counselors Academy
1992 named to Hall of Fame for Lifetime Contributions to Profession, Arthur W. Page Society
1980 John W. Hill Award, Public Relations Society of America, N.Y. chapter
1987 Gold Anvil award for unusually significant contributions, Public Relations Society of America
1995 Special award, International Association of Business Communicators
1955-2011 Public Relations Society of America
1959-1960 Telephone Pioneers of America (honorary)
1959-1961 American Public Relations Association (director, N.Y. chapter, 1959-60, v.p. each chapter, 1960-61)
1972-1994 International Association of Business Communicators
1972-1994 American Arbitration Association, (national panel of arbitrators)
1993-2011 National Association of Securities Dealers (national panel of arbitrators)
1998-2011 Association of Former Intelligence Officers
His One-of-a-Kind Consulting Firm is Bringing Business and Consumers Closer Together
by Janice Carter, The Cleveland Plain Dealer Magazine, Sunday, August 24, 1980
NEW YORK, N.Y. — A handful of telephone numbers in the United States end in -0000. One belongs to Chet Burger, a national television news pioneer with a livelihood as unusual as his number. From a small suite of 19th floor offices at 275 Madison Ave., in the midst of New York City's corporate image makers and power brokers, the soft-spoken Burger advises some of the nation's largest, most influential businesses.
His mission? Helping their executive officers to communicate better with their customers and the news media.
By talking to these officers he also talks to the customers, whose dollars keep them in business.
Burger numbers hundreds of organizations — including public relations firms and associations — among his clients. The author of five books on executive life, his name is well known in corporate suites around the country.
For example, Burger helped to change the way irate Ohio Bell customers are treated when they complain about service.
"Our customer-contact managers, who were trained by Burger, later said they used his advice in face-to-face situations with customers," said Harold W. Burlingame, assistant vice president of public relations.
"Now if a customer has a complaint about a bill or installation date, our managers explain openly and in terms the customer can understand. As a result, a customer can get the answers he or she wants about the services we provide."
"Let me give you an example," Burger says, using his favorite expression to make a point about the need of American business to tell the truth in terms the public can understand.
"All the events and information surrounding Three Mile Island were mishandled. The public was given dishonest information and information it couldn't understand.
"Consumer and environmental protection are essential in our society, not marginal. The public must have the right to a voice in such issues, but also be willing to pay the price."
"One public relations official for an involved company joked when he gave a private number to the media and then took the phone off the hook. With that kind of nonsense, how can you expect anyone to believe you?
"If the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and the utility in question had been forthright, you wouldn't have the hysteria present today."
The craggy-faced, 59-year-old Burger is president of Chester Burger & Co. Inc., a one-of-a-kind management consulting firm.
Burger hadn't planned on a business career — or for that matter, any other career. In 1940, he worked as an office boy at a Wall Street law firm.
He attended college at night and "never got a thing out of it."
Later, however, he took a job at CBS-TV where his interest in business and communication began.
"In the early days of TV when I was a reporter, I met an AT&T public relations man who asked a lot of questions about what we were doing. And I asked him a lot of questions about his business. If he didn't have an answer then and there, he'd get it for me."
Why would executives of large, profitable corporations, with public relations departments of their own, need a Chet Burger to advise them how to talk to the public and the news media?
"Mainly because my four partners and I have a wide range of experience with the many issues — ecology, government regulation, labor, equal employment — business must face today," Burger said. "Public relations people at most companies simply don't have this background in responding to such a variety of issues.
"This is not to say there never is anyone employed by our clients who hasn't been there, so to speak. And when I find such a person, I get to know him and take advantage of his expertise."
But can't a fat-salaried, high-powered executive talk intelligently about his own business?
"Corporate executives are highly trained in everything but public relations and public opinion," Burger said. "They are hard workers but don't know how to talk. People don't understand their language — things like equity and rate of return.
"And they're human, like everyone else. They don't like to be criticized. And there is a widespread feeling among businessmen that the press is out to get them."
"Chet Burger is an unusually fine corporate and personal consultant," said Joseph D. Reed, Ohio Bell vice president. "He has a singular talent for bringing a competent, straightforward point of view to business discussions."
Firms that have done business with Burger for a long time include Ohio Bell, and its parent firm, American Telephone & Telegraph Co.; Babcock & Wilcox Co. (New Orleans); Benton & Bowles Inc. (New York City); Northwest Bancorp (Minneapolis); Occidental Petroleum Corp. (Los Angeles); Johns-Manville Corp. (Denver); the American Bankers Association (Washington, D.C.) and McDonald's Corp. (Oak Brook, Ill.)
He also serves as a consultant to Carr Liggett Inc., one of Cleveland's largest public relations and advertising firms.
"Survival has become the key business concern of high-level executives these days," Burger said. "It is incredibly difficult and complex to run a major company. It's not that businesses don't want to be responsive to public demand. They do and always have been.
"Now, however, their future, their very survival, depends on questions of public policy and decisions of regulatory bodies, not just what their customers and employees think or want."
Years ago, he said, big companies made profits, provided jobs, produced goods and services and negotiated with labor unions. Today, their executives, apologize for profits, are criticized for giving out fewer jobs, provide goods and services the public complains are overpriced, negotiate not only with labor unions but with consumer, environmental and equal rights groups, and wonder what to do about hostile reporters and bureaucrats.
Tough antagonists all, Burger said.
"We first brought Chet to Cleveland back in 1974 to work with us on multiple issues," said Ohio Bell's Reed. "At the time, every company policy was being attacked or questioned by different groups. I thought our ability to engage in public dialog was quite low.
"Chet, very simply, gets business leadership to understand the responsibility of speaking out on issues and speaking out with candor."
"Obviously, I'm in favor of environmental protection," Burger said. "Consumer and environmental protection are essential in our society, not marginal. The public must have the right to a voice in such issues, but also be willing to pay the price."
Burger thinks that Watergate and Vietnam, in which "the public discovered it was being lied to, not only by the president and government officials but by the military," made people distrustful of all institutions, including business.
"People thought President Nixon was a friend of business. Well, he wasn't. He sent a lawyer to call around on companies, shaking them down for thousands of dollars under threat of regulatory harassment.
"Nobody was more anti-business than I was back in college. (He was graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946.) Business was the villain. Our family lost its home during the Depression. And my professors said business was no good."
As Burger sees it, corporate executives still are victims of widespread anti-business sentiments. But he, personally, has changed.
"I am convinced successful businesses have a good story to tell, are well-managed and should not be ashamed of making a profit. That's what I try to get across in my training sessions."
Like many executives he counsels, Burger is a workaholic. His corner office is strictly a workplace. There is no plush carpeting, executive-type furniture or soft lighting.
A typical Chet Burger workday starts with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting. Occasionally, the bulk of the day may be absorbed by a flight to California for a luncheon meeting with a corporate executive and immediate return home to New York.
He averages three days of travel each week to meet with clients, and he says he's never met a martini-at lunch executive. Very often his own lunch, during business trips, will be at McDonald's, one of the more consumer-oriented companies for which he is a consultant.
He wears dark-framed glasses and conservative suits, always set off by one of his 130 pairs of distinctive cuff links. The collection — meticulously organized in a bureau drawer at his home near Lincoln Center — includes sets from the more than 50 countries he has visited, the companies he counsels and civic organizations he serves.
One pair he points out with special pride is an IWY (International Women's Year) design his wife Elisabeth, had made for him.
Known for his deep commitment to equal employment opportunity, Burger served nine years on the board of trustees of the National Urban League.
Carolyn Woods, the firm's vice president, a black woman, has been with him since she was hired as a secretary in 1972.
Burger's training often takes the form of videotaping company executives being questioned by a "reporter" and then critiquing the tapes with the interview subject.
The questioning, which Burger insists be as tough and realistic as possible, sometimes turns into a grilling. As a result, those who have been through it are said to have been "Burgerized."
Burger's reporter, usually an ex-newsman or actor, is primed to ask hard questions on everything from profits to equal employment practices. Sometimes, the executives lose their tempers, grow defensive or end up totally flustered. The good things they hoped to say about their company never surface.
Seated at a corner table in a dimly lit restaurant, Burger, his reporter and a public relations representative of the client company plan details of the next day's training. Possible questions the reporter might use are discussed, and any areas of personal sensitivity are pointed out by the company man.
"Now this guy's got a real short fuse, so be ready if you cut him off without giving him a chance to answer; he might explode," the PR man warns.
With hot TV lights streaming down, Burger's reporter leans forward in his chair, stares, unsmiling, into the face of the middle-aged executive, and asks: Tell me, have you ever reported directly to a woman?"
"Why, no. No, I haven't," comes the hesitant reply.
"How do you think you'd handle it, if one bright morning, you discover your new boss is a female?" the reporter continues, boring in.
"Well, I guess, that is, if she was qualified, I guess it would be all right."
"All right, but not really your cup of tea, isn't that so?"
"Why no, not at all..."
As this is going on, Burger is seated off to-the side, out of camera range, his eyes fixed on the executive, a small note pad in hand...
"I'm dealing more and more as a consultant on the issue of equal employment," Burger said. "Companies are defensive on the question of women and minorities in management, especially upper management. Most are sensitive to their relatively small numbers prior to the Civil Rights Act, although this only reflected the mores of America at the time.
"Businessmen want to obey the law. Some may say, 'We don't like it, but we'll obey it.' Some think promoting minorities and women will lower standards. And there's a lot of resentment from white males. So women and minorities have to perform, or else. And most are damned good in their jobs."
What does Burger suggest companies say about equal employment?
"Why not tell the truth? Be absolutely honest, but say it in a positive way. Tell how many women and minorities are being moved up the ladder and how this is being accomplished. That's the story to tell."
Burger was on his feet, talking as he paced back and forth, every move studied by the five upper-management types seated in a semicircle in the company's closed-circuit TV studio.
"…and then the reporter asks the executive if it was true ‘his company made a bonanza in profits last year,’" he said, suddenly stopping. "And you know what the executive answered? He said, 'No, our profits weren't a bonanza.'
"Well, you can guess the rest. The next day the paper came out and the story was headlined, 'Profits no bonanza, says oil company executive.'
"The man's mistake was repeating the reporter's word, 'bonanza.' That's a no-no..."
Despite the occasional unpleasantness of being "Burgerized," his training has produced a bevy of articulate disciples.
"What I offer is the opportunity — to talk with someone outside the company on questions of corporate policy and public opinion," he said.
"But I don't develop images. There's no such thing as image. There's only reality. You can't put over an image without a reality to support it."
Burger's stand for honesty in communication is supported by his conviction that credibility is the key issue facing America today.
"That's the problem of the Carter administration," he said. "You've got to work with people. You must have their respect. I believe the White House is having problems because the current administration has failed to do this."
"What Chet advises, in short, is, if you believe in what you're doing, say it. And, if you can't say it, then you better reexamine what you're doing, and fast," Reed said.
At home, in a stately old apartment building with a 26-foot-high living room ceiling, Burger's life-style seems as no-nonsense as his approach to business. A book-lined study, complete with desks for himself and his wife, the former Lady Owen, is adjacent to the huge, white-walled living room with bright, northern exposure.
Elisabeth Burger, whose late husband, Sir (Arthur) David K. Owen, was assistant secretary general of the United Nations, has two adult sons. Burger, married twice before, has three children.
At a pleasant, family dinner on a Sunday in April, there was piano playing, a just-starting-to-talk grandchild's wish to have dessert before finishing his vegetables, and light-to-serious conversation. The subjects ranged from a cordial debate on the New York transit workers strike then in progress, to travels in Bucharest (where Elisabeth was an IWY conference officer), Japan, Russia and dog sledding in the Arctic, to women in the labor movement.
An avid walker, Burger delights in strolling in his picturesque neighborhood and beyond. Sometimes he walks the two-plus miles to his office in the morning, and back again in the evening.
Burger, who worked at CBS before Walter Cronkite came along, was responsible for developing national news coverage at the television network. He joined CBS-TV in 1946 and was its first national news manager in 1953 when the largest news gathering operation in television history got under way.
He left CBS in 1954 to become president of Communications Counselors Inc., the public relations firm of Interpublic Inc. Later he became president of a New York City job placement firm and started his present firm in 1964.
"News and newspeople have changed since those early days," he says. "Today's re-porters — especially on the print side — are more aggressive and unpredictable. I always tell executives we counsel to stay away from one-upmanship with reporters during interviews.
"There is no way you can win. The media always has the last word.
"You tell the truth. And, if that doesn't sound like simple, common sense, then there isn't a lot of it around."
Abraham Lincoln: Master Persuader
By Chester Burger, Public Relations Journal, February 1976
“He Was a Genius at Influencing Public Opinion.”
Abraham Lincoln was a master persuader. In our Bicentennial Year, it is instructive to examine his views on the subject of public opinion, and to study the techniques he used to influence it.
Our 16th President gave much thought and effort to persuading his fellow Americans to support the Union. He recognized the overwhelming importance of public opinion, and he sought to win public support not by manipulation and untruths, but by a forthright, thoughtful, and persuasive approach.
Lincoln several times spoke about the techniques of persuasion, and he practiced what he preached. He understood the influence of opinion leaders, the necessity for time to elapse to bring about acceptance of new ideas, the need to speak to his opponents, even more than to his supporters, and the value of authentic testimonials.
And in presenting his case to the public, Abraham Lincoln knew how to use humor but never ridicule; analogy but never misrepresentation to make his points effectively.
There were no mass media a century ago, of course, and there was no communications technology worth speaking of. When Lincoln debated Stephen A. Douglas on the slavery issue, none but those present heard him; there were no tape recordings to capture the sound of his voice. There were no mass-circulation national magazines, and local newspapers were small in circulation. Photography had only begun; photos could not be reproduced except one at a time. So Lincoln paid attention only to his original speeches and writings, not to their reproduction.
Certainly, Lincoln understood the importance of public opinion. In one debate with Douglas, Lincoln demonstrated an understanding of how people form their opinions, and the importance of what we would today call opinion leaders.
In his very first debate with Douglas, the opposition (Democratic) political leader, at Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858, Lincoln accused Douglas of trying to arouse national sentiment in favor of slavery. "Let us consider," he said, "what Judge Douglas is doing every day to that end.
"In the first place, let us see what influence he is exerting on public sentiment. In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed. This must be borne in mind, as also the additional fact that Judge Douglas is a man of vast influence, so great that it is enough for many men to profess to believe anything, when they once find out that Judge Douglas professes to believe it."
Time is required
Lincoln recognized that bold new ideas are not accepted immediately; time is required for them to "sink in" and become accepted as "inevitable." When the desperate struggle of the Union armies finally drove President Lincoln to decide to emancipate the slaves in the rebel states, even then he did not act immediately. Rather, on September 22, 1862, he officially announced his intention to issue the Emancipation Proclamation one hundred days later. He declared he would officially release the proclamation, with the force of law, on January 1st, 1863. Lincoln also hoped that in the interim, some or all of the rebellious states would return to the Union rather than lose their slaves. "They chose to disregard it," he later wrote. So he acted, but 100 days later, public opinion had been given ample time to accept the inevitability of the dramatic act.
Lincoln the persuader never attacked his opponents personally. He did not indulge in name-calling or recrimination. Instead, he appealed to his opponents by expressing a sympathetic understanding of their position, without, at the same time, accepting or agreeing to it. Lincoln wanted his opponents' support, and he recognized he would not get it if he attacked them or misrepresented their position.
He used this technique in 1854, in a speech at Peoria, Illinois, when he attacked the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which opened the newly admitted states to slavery. In his remarks to a Peoria audience, Lincoln began by commenting on his opponents' viewpoint:
"Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.
This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless, there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some Southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tiptop abolitionists; while some Northern ones go south, and become most cruel slavemasters.
"When Southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery then we, I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists, and that it is very difficult to get rid of it in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself.''
We know from some of his other writings and speeches that Lincoln had given considerable thought to the problems of persuasion. So it is entirely possible that the opening of his Peoria speech had been carefully thought out to maximize its persuasiveness.
Much earlier, in his 33rd year, while a young lawyer, Lincoln verbalized his insight into the nature of the process of persuasion.
His audience was an organization of reformed drunkards whose goal, predictably, was to preach temperance. Lincoln noted that after 20 years of propaganda against alcohol, the temperance movement was only then beginning to encounter success. Why had earlier efforts failed? In Abraham Lincoln's view, the previous failures had been caused by criticizing the victims of drink, instead of giving them sympathy and help. He pointed out that earlier temperance advocates had been professional propagandists who were unable to identity with those they sought to persuade. Here are his words:
"The warfare heretofore engaged against the demon of intemperance has, somehow or other, been erroneous. Either the champions engaged, or the tactics they adopted, have not been the most proper. These champions, for the most part, have been preachers, lawyers and hired agents. Between these and the mass of mankind, there is a want of approachability, if the term be admissable; partially at least, fatal to their success. They are supposed to have no sympathy of feeling or interest with those very persons whom it is their object to convince and persuade."
Then Lincoln explained why he felt such spokesmen were unacceptable, referring to the prevailing attitudes of the day (1842):
''It is so easy and so common to ascribe motives to men of these classes, other than those they profess to act upon. The preacher, it is said, advocates temperance because he is a fanatic, and desires a union of church and state; the lawyer, from his pride and vanity of hearing himself speak; and the hired agent, for his salary."
Lincoln opted for the authentic first-person testimonial, rather than argument by "third-person endorsement." He felt that an effective personal testimonial was compellingly persuasive. "When one, who has long been known as a victim of intemperance, bursts the fetters that have bound him, and appears before his neighbors ‘clothed and in his right mind,’ a redeemed specimen of long-lost humanity, and stands up with tears of joy trembling in eyes to tel1 of the miseries once endured, now to be endured no more...however simple his language, there is a logic and an eloquence in it that few with human feelings can resist.
They cannot say that he desires a union of church and state, for he is not a church member; they cannot say he is vain of hearing himself speak, for his whole demeanor shows, he would gladly avoid speaking at all; they cannot say he speaks tor pay. tor he receives none, and asks none. Nor can his sincerity in any way be doubted; or his sympathy for those he would persuade to imitate his example, be denied."
By contrast, said Lincoln, when drinkers were attacked "not in the accents of entreaty and persuasion. diffidently addressed by erring man to an erring brother; but in the thundering tones of anathema and denunciation... "it was no wonder "that they were slow, very slow, to acknowledge the truth of such denunciations, and to join the ranks of their denouncers, in a hue and cry against themselves. To have expected them to do otherwise than as they did—to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God's decree and never can be reversed. When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion—kind, unassuming persuasion—should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim that a 'drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.' So with men.
"If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.
"On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgement, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made; and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him than to penetrate the shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
"Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his best interest."
A forthright approach
The techniques of persuasion, in Lincoln's eyes, did not include concealment of areas of disagreement. It was consonant with his character that he believed that his hearers were entitled to know exactly where he stood, even if they might disagree with him. In 1846, when he was running for a seat in the House of Representatives, from the 7th District of Illinois, he was attacked as a non-believer by his opponent, a Methodist minister.
Immediately, he decided to tell voters his viewpoint forthrightly, so that they could judge for themselves. In a handbill dated July 31, 1846, he wrote:
"A charge having got into circulation...that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian church is true, but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular….I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings and injure the morals of the community in which he may live."
Lincoln the persuader knew the value of humor as a technique to win friends, as for example when he responded to Stephen Douglas' disparagement of his humble origins. In his speech at Ottawa, Illinois, already mentioned, Lincoln commented, "The Judge is woefully at fault about his early friend Lincoln being a 'grocery keeper.' I don't know as it would be a great sin if I had been, but he is mistaken. Lincoln never kept a grocery anywhere in the world. It is true Lincoln did work the latter part of one winter in a small still house, up at the head of a hollow. " After which, the reporter who transcribed the speech inserted "(Roars of Laughter)." Apparently, Lincoln didn't mind suggesting his involvement with "Kentucky moonshine," and his audience didn't either.
Lincoln loved to simplify complex points with analogies and illustrations. Once he was challenged because he had approved the arrest of an Ohio congressman and his expulsion into Confederate territory for expressing sympathy with the rebel cause. Lincoln wrote a letter to a Democratic leader to explain why he supported the action. He used a simple analogy to make his point: "Long experience has shown that armies cannot be maintained unless desertion shall be punished by the severe penalty of death… Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert? This is none the less injurious when effected by getting a father or brother or friend into a public meeting and there working on his feelings, till he is persuaded to write the soldier boy that he is fighting in a bad cause, for a wicked administration of a contemptible government, too weak to arrest and punish him if he shall desert. I think that in such a case, to silence the agitator and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but withal a great mercy."
Faith in the common man
At the core of Lincoln's beliefs was a fundamental faith and trust in the judgment of the common man. He himself had practically no formal education; he once described how he had gone to school "by littles"—a little now and then. "When I came of age, " he said, "I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all." If Lincoln was not formally educated, neither did he believe that lack of formal schooling would bar intelligent judgments by his countrymen.
"Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?" he asked in his First Inaugural Address. ';Is there any better or equal hope in the world ?" Already by the day of his inauguration, seven states had seceded from the United States of America and formed a rebel government under the name of the Confederate States. Yet, Lincoln did not lose faith.
"In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right?" he asked, "If the Almighty Ruler of nations, with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail, by the judgment of this great tribunal, the American people."
This is how our first martyred President saw the task of persuasion. It was not demagoguery, not gimmicks, not lying, but rather an honest expression of views, presented with sensitivity to his audience and based on his profound respect for its intelligence. This is persuasion as all of us ought to practice it.
How to Meet the Press
When you know the rules of the reporter’s ‘game,’ you can communicate your corporate story effectively and truthfully
By Chester Burger, Harvard Business Review, July - August 1975
Mr. Burger is president of Chester Burger & Co., Inc., a New York management-consulting firm serving corporate public relations departments and PR agencies. He formerly was national manager of CBS Television News. He is also the author of Survival in the Executive Jungle(Macmillan, 1964), Executives under Fire (Macmillan, 1966), and other management books.
One of the continuing problems facing a top executive or spokesman of any organization in times of stress or major change is how to tell his company's story to a press, radio, or television reporter. The dilemma is that the official is fearful of putting his foot in his mouth by saying the wrong things. He knows he is at a disadvantage in talking with a reporter who is skilled at asking provocative questions in order to get provocative, interesting, and controversial answers. But the advantage need not be so one-sided. As this author discusses, there are certain guidelines that any executive can learn and remember which will enable him to meet the press with no postmortems necessary.
Why cannot business find a way to tell its story through the news media? Is the press really dominated by hostile, anti-establishment reporters? Are leftist editors biting the business hand that feeds them?
Many corporate spokesmen are convinced that today's news media, or at least their young reporters, are imbued with a fundamental bias against business.
Journalist Edith Efron believes, for example, that American newsmen are hostile to business, to capitalism itself. Referring specifically to television, she writes: "The antagonism to capitalism on the nation's airwaves, the deeply entrenched prejudice in favor of state control over the productive machinery of the nation, is not a subjective assessment. It is a hard cultural fact."
That, however, is an assessment with which one can reasonably disagree. As NBC commentator David Brinkley reminds us, "When a reporter asks questions, he is not working for the person being questioned, whether businessman, politician, or bureaucrat, but he is working for the readers and listeners."
If indeed the working press, reporters, and correspondents bear an anti-business animosity, opinion polls tell us that such attitudes are quite representative of public opinion generally in the United States today. Rather than dismissing newsmen and news media as hostile, these may be the very ones to whom business ought to increase its communication, because they typify the attitudes of millions of Americans.
Further, while the corporate president often finds his life and circle of personal contacts circumscribed within the territory of his management team, his luncheon club, and his country club, the working reporter's duties bring him into daily contact with broad strata of the population, ranging from politicians to factory workers and activist leaders. He cannot be dismissed lightly. Nor should he be written off.
So it would seem essential for corporate presidents and spokesmen to learn how to tell their stories effectively to the press, radio, and television reporters. But there is more to it than that. Unless one knows how to tell what CBS commentator Eric Sevareid calls "the simple truth," one may fail to communicate. Although businessmen are as intelligent as members of the working press, they are unskilled in the art of effective communication.
As Bos Johnson, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says, "Businessmen are often so frightened or wary of the reporters that they come across looking suspicious. And there's no reason to be. They should put their best foot forward, speak out candidly, assuming they have nothing to hide."
A corporate president is not chosen for his outstanding ability to articulate corporate problems. He is selected by his hoard of directors because of his management know-how, or his financial expertise, or his legal proficiency, or whatever particular combination of these talents may be required by the immediate problems facing the company. In utilizing his own skills, he is usually very good indeed.
But the skills of management are not the same as those required to deal with the news media. Reporters, whether they are employed by television (where most people get their news these days), newspapers, magazines, or radio are trained in the skills of interviewing. They excel in their ability to talk with someone and unearth a newsworthy story, one that will stimulate their viewers or readers. That is why they were selected; that is their surpassing talent; and that is precisely what unnerves corporate managers who choose to face their questions.
The elaborate files of newspapers and the film and tape libraries of television stations are replete with examples of boners, indiscretions, and insensitive statements voiced by corporate spokesmen. My own experience, first as a television network news executive and later as a management consultant, convinces me that there is no more mysterious reason for management's failure to communicate effectively with the news media than what it simply does not know how.
Businessmen, rarely fearful of meeting their stockholders or their bankers, tremble before the newsman for fear he will accidentally or deliberately misquote them or pull their words out of context.
This can indeed happen, and it occasionally does But every reporter knows that if he sins or errs more than once or twice, his job will be endangered. Newspapers do not like to print corrections of their errors — only a few do — but editors like even less to see errors break into print or be broadcast on radio or television.
The problem usually is not with the reporters. They try to get things straight. More and more these days, in fact, they are showing up for interviews armed with cassette tape recorders. This is an encouraging trend for the businessman because it ensures more accurate quotation. It also frees the newsman from the note-taking burden so that he can concentrate on the subject under discussion.
But a recorded interview is hell for the executive who says the wrong things. If he puts his foot in his mouth, his words will be quotable and, most likely, quoted. No longer will he be able to blame the reporter for misquotation.
Business managers know from experience that newsmen will not hesitate to cover (i.e., write or film) a story that may be damaging to their company. From this perception, it is easy to conclude that the reporters are basically hostile to business. However, management often fails to understand that the reporter’s first responsibility is to produce a newsworthy story that will interest his audience. The reporter frankly does not care whether that "public interest story" will help or hinder the company. The reporter will select, from his bag of techniques, whatever method he believes will produce an interesting and informative story.
So the lesson is clear: if the corporate executive has something to say, he must present it to the reporter in an interesting way. A skilled reporter, hot on the trail of a noteworthy story, uses standard techniques to get it. Businessmen ought to know what these techniques are, and to decide that it is worth the effort to learn to cope with them. Kerryn King, Texaco's senior vice president-public affairs, put it sharply and well when he told a recent public relations conference: "Industry, and especially the petroleum industry, has an urgent need to dispel its reputation for secrecy and its reputation for indifference to public opinion that this supposed secrecy implies. I believe that when you once lay the full facts before a journalist, he is less likely to be taken in by critics who know less about your business than he does.
"The more information you can get out, the more light you can shed, especially on misunderstood economic matters, the better your standing with the public, in my opinion.
"A principal reason that people become frightened during a crisis is misinformation or noninformation. That is what moves them to action, whether that action be violence or demands for nationalization."
The rules of the 'game'
Rather than abandon the field to misinformation, it is better to learn the rules of critics, journalistic or otherwise. These guidelines are simple, and they can be learned. Hundreds, and probably several thousand corporate managers have learned them. They have discovered that when you know the rules of the reporter's "game," you can communicate your story effectively and truthfully, with no postmortems necessary.
For the businessman to be successful in speaking with press or public, there are two general criteria and ten specific guidelines to learn and remember. I shall present these respectively in the balance of this article.
First, it is necessary to have a sound attitude. That attitude is not one of either arrogance or false humility. Rather, it is an attitude in which the business executive respects his own competence and greater knowledge of his own subject, but realistically recognizes that the reporter or critic is skilled in the art of asking provocative questions, hopefully to elicit provocative, interesting, and perhaps controversial answers.
Second, it is always wise to prepare carefully for a press interview. Never should an executive walk into a meeting with the press,' planning to "play it by ear" (i.e., to improvise). Preparation is essential. The best preparation consists of anticipating the most likely questions, attempting to research the facts, and structuring effective answers to be held ready for use. Probably it is unwise to carry such notes into the interview. It would be better instead to have the answers well in mind, although not literally memorized.
Let us now turn to the ten specific rules of effective communication found most useful by corporate executives.
1. Talk from the viewpoint of the public's interest, not the company's.
This important rule presents difficulties for most corporate presidents and senior executives. Their difficulty is understandable. When you have spent years struggling to manage the company, it is difficult to step back and look at your problem and your own company from a different perspective.
For example, often during negotiations for a new union contract, corporate spokesmen will tell the press, in effect, "We can't afford the increase the union is asking." That may be true, but why should the public bc concerned with the company’s financial problems? Employees often respond with hostility and resentment. It is much better to say, "We'd like to give our employees the increase they seek. But if our costs go up too much, our customers won't buy.
That will hurt us, and in the end, it will endanger our employees' jobs."
Or an electric utility challenged, say, on its policy of requiring deposits from new customers, may respond, since it is a truthful answer, "We don't like to ask for deposits because they annoy our customers; they're a nuisance to us. Also, we have to pay interest on the money."But we don't think it fair that you should have to pay part of someone else's electric bill when he fails to pay. And that's just what happens: the cost of his service is passed along to all other users. If a new customer pays his bills promptly for six months, we refund his deposit, and we're glad to do it."
Sometimes, in their efforts to present their story from the public viewpoint, companies seem to assume the pose of philanthropic institutions. They claim to be acting in and serving the public interest in whatever course of action they are following. And indeed this may be true.
But to a skeptical public, such talk falls on unhearing ears. The public knows, or believes, that a company primarily acts in its own self-interest. When this self-interest is not frankly admitted, credibility is endangered.
So it is desirable always to indicate your company's position in a given course of action. The soft-drink bottler who launches a campaign for collecting and recycling of its containers can frankly admit that it does not want to irritate the public by having its product’s packaging strewn across the landscape. Because this is the truth, the public will find the entire story of the company’s environmental efforts more credible.
Every industry has its own language, its own terminology. When a corporate spokesman uses company lingo, he knows exactly what he means. But the public generally does not. So speak in terms the ordinary citizen can understand.
Instead of saying, "Our management is considering whether to issue equity or debt," it might be better to say, "We are considering whether to sell more stock in our company, or to try to borrow money by issuing bonds."
2. Speak in personal terms whenever possible.
Any corporation, even one of modest size, involves many people in decision making and other activities. So corporate executives early in their careers learn never to say "I," but rather "we" or "the company."
When dozens or a hundred people have worked on developing a new product or adopting a new policy, it becomes difficult if not impossible for anyone connected with the project to say "I." Yet the words "the company," or "we", only reinforce the public image of corporations as impersonal monoliths in which no one retains his individuality or has any individual responsibility.
To avoid reinforcing this impression, if an executive has participated in a project he is proud of, he should be encouraged to speak in the first person and to reflect that pride. For example, "I was one of the team that worked on this product. My job involved the product design." Of course, it is wrong to claim personal credit where it has not been earned. But the top executive who can speak in terms of his personal experience will always make a favorable impression.
Executives sometimes even hesitate to use the term "we" because they are reluctant to speak officially on behalf of the company. Unless they have been properly authorized by management, their reluctance is justified. But when middle-level or even lower-level managers have been carefully briefed and know the answers to the questions under discussion, they often make quite effective company spokesmen.
One telephone company, for example, invited its chief operators to speak to the press on its behalf in small communities where their position had considerable esteem. In this case, if a chief operator discussed local matters within her range of responsibility, such as changes in local telephone rates, she would provide considerable credibility. The press and public would rightfully assume she knew from personal involvement what she was talking about. But if she were to discuss overall corporate financing, obviously her credibility would vanish.
3. If you do not want some statement quoted, do not make it.
Corporate spokesmen should avoid "off-the-record" statements. There is no such thing as "off-the-record." If a company president tells something to a reporter off the record, it may not be used with his name attached. But it may well turn up in the same published article, minus his name, and with a qualifying phrase added, "Meanwhile, it has been learned from other sources that…" The damage is done.
Therefore, an experienced company officer quickly learns that if he does not want something published or used, he should not divulge it to the reporter on any basis. And although naive company officials sometimes assume that an invisible line divides informal conversation from the beginning of the formal interview, no such dividing line exists in the reporter’s mind. What is said may be used, either directly or as a basis for further probing elsewhere.
The same off-the-record rule applies to telephone conversations with the media: whether or not you hear a beep, your words may be recorded. A recording makes it impossible for you to deny later what the reporter has taped in your own voice.
4. State the most important fact at the beginning.
Years of training and experience, often without conscious thought, have accustomed the typical corporate executive to respond to questions in a particular way. If the executive is asked, "What should we do about our new product?" he will frequently respond along these lines, "We are facing shortages of plastics. And their cost is rising so fast I don't think we can price the product at an attractive level. Moreover, we have a labor shortage in the plant. So I recommend we don't take any action now to develop the product."
The executive's format lists the facts that lead to his final conclusion and recommendation. But such organization of his material will fail when it is used in talking with the news media. There are both psychological and technical reasons why.
Psychologically, we tend to remember most clearly the first thing that is said, not the last. So when you speak to a reporter, you should turn your statement around to begin with the conclusion, "We don't plan to develop the product. We are facing materials shortages. Our costs are going up, and we also have a shortage of skilled labor." In such a reverse format, the most important statement is likely to be best remembered: "We don't plan to develop the new product."
Technical consideration in printing and production are also an important reason for giving your conclusion first. The newspaper reporter who writes the story seldom knows in advance how much space will be available for its publication. So he has been trained to put the most important fact at the beginning, using subsequent paragraphs to report items of declining importance. If the most important fact is buried at the bottom of the story, it may simply be chopped off in the composing room to fit the available space.
On television, time pressures and broadcast deadlines often make it impossible to screen all filmed material for selection of the best footage; frequently, program producers or news editors are compelled to select segments from the beginning of a film. So, I repeat, the most important fact should be stated first. Afterward, it can be explained at whatever length is necessary; but even if the full explanation is cut, the initial statement will survive.
5. Do not argue with the reporter or lose your cool.
Understand that the newsman seeks an interesting story and will use whatever techniques he needs to obtain it. An executive cannot win an argument with the reporter in whose power the published story lies. Since the executive has initially allowed himself to be interviewed, he should use the interview as an Opportunity to answer questions in a way that will present his story fairly and adequately.
If a reporter interrupts the executive, it is not rudeness; it is a deliberate technique that means he is not satisfied with the corporate response he is hearing. The solution is for the executive to respond more directly and more clearly.
An executive should never ask questions of the reporter out of his own anger and frustration. I remember the following example:
Reporter: How many black executives do you have in your company?
Executive: [Irritated] Damn it, how many black editors do you have on your paper?
Reporter: I'm here to ask you the questions.
An executive may occasionally win the battle with that sort of tactic, but he will always lose the war. The reporter, not the executive, will write the story. The published interview will reflect the reporter’s own hostility.
6. If a question contains offensive language or simply words you do not like, do not repeat them, even to deny them.
Reporters often use the gambit of putting words into the subject's mouth. It is easy. Politicians do it, too. The technique works like this: the reporter includes colorful, provocative language in his question. For example, "Mr. Jones, wouldn't you describe your oil company’s profits this year as a bonanza?" If Mr. Jones bites, he will answer, "No, our profits are not a bonanza."
When Senator Abraham Ribicoff asked a similar question during the ------ Senate Committee hearings, President Harry Bridges of Shell Oil Company (USA) was trapped. That is exactly how he did answer, And his answer was headlined "Oil Profits No Bonanza, Executive Says." Even though Bridges denied the charge, in the public's mind he associated the world "oil profits" with "bonanza." He might have answered the question this way: "Senator, our profits aren't high enough.
To build more refineries and increase the oil supply, we're going to need to earn much more money."
Most executives have never noticed, but the reporter knows well that his questions will not be quoted in his article; only the interviewee's answers will be. It is not important, therefore, whether a reporter asks a question loaded with hostile and inaccurate language; the important thing is how the question is answered. As long as an executive does not repeat the offensive language, even to deny it, it will not appear in the published report.
On some occasions, overzealous reporters have even been known, with dubious ethics, to ask an executive to comment on a so-called "fact," which may be an outright untruth. The quoted "fact" has the ring of plausibility.
For example, one reporter asked a plant manager, "Ecology Magazine says your plant is one of the worst polluters in this state. Would you care to comment on that?"
The manager immediately became defensive and insisted to the reporter that his plant did not really pollute too badly, considering all the other sources of pollution in the local river. The manager did not know that no magazine called Ecology exists. The false quotation had been manufactured by the reporter. But it served its purpose. It put the manager on the defensive and induced him to talk. The reporter's false "quotation" was never published.
If you are asked a question based on a "fact" about which you are uncertain, be wary of a trap. The so-called "fact" may indeed be a fact, but if you are not sure, it is better to dissociate yourself from it. You might say, "I'm not familiar with that quotation," and then proceed to answer the question in your own positive way.
7. If the reporter asks a direct question, he is entitled to an equally direct answer.
Sometimes, executives who have been interviewed fail to make the points they wanted to make, and then they blame the reporter. Usually, it is their own fault. They have been playing what is called the "ping-pong game." The reporter asks a question; they answer it He asks another; they answer it. Back and forth the ball bounces, but the executive does not know how to squeeze in what he regards as his important points.
This common error in dealing with the press is one the executive is particularly prone to make. Management training accustoms executives to answer questions directly, without undue amplification. Such conduct is appropriate when talking with the boss, but it is inappropriate when talking with a reporter. Here amplification is often in order.
Corporate officers incorrectly assume that they somehow protect themselves by giving simple yes or no answers to questions. Their theory is that the less said, the better. The yes or no answer is not, however, interesting to a reporter. Usually, he will react by provoking the executive in the hope of obtaining a more informative and colorfully expressed response.
This rule is not intended to suggest that an executive answer with either evasion or wordiness. But interviewees should not stop with a one-word response. Instead, they should amplify the point until they have said what they want to say.
For example, suppose a reporter asks, "Aren't you still polluting the air and river?" The answer should be positive and broad, rather than simply "No." A factory manager might respond, "Protecting the environment in Jonesville concerns us greatly. We've eliminated the major sources of pollution. The smoke from our factories is gorne; we spent $3 million to purify the exhaust fumes from our furnaces. We've added filters to remove waste from water that flows back into the river. But we stil1 haven't solved the problem of cooling our waste water, and we are working hard on that."
8. If an executive does not know the answer to a question, he should simply say, "I don't know, but I'll find out for you."
However, if the executive replies simply, "I don't know," it might appear to the reporter or viewer that he is being evasive. So executives are advised never to answer "I don't know" alone, but always to qualify the answer with a phrase like, "I'll put you in touch with someone else who can answer that for you," or similar words. Of course, the executive then assumes the responsibility of following through to ensure that the requested information is provided promptly.
Occasionally, a reporter will ask a question which the executive does not wish to answer. There may be a legal reason, say, because the company is in registration in connection with a new securities issue. Or the requested information may be a proprietary company secret. In such circumstances, the recommended course is to respond directly, without evasion or excuses, "I'm sorry. I can't give you that information."
However, if the question seems appropriate, and it usually is, it is desirable to explain to the reporter why his question cannot be answered. Executives are cautioned never to "play dumb," deny knowledge, or give anything other than a forthright refusal.
9. Tell the truth, even if it hurts.
In this era of skepticism, hostility, and challenge, the fact remains that the most difficult task of all sometimes is simply telling the truth. This rule can be embarrassing for the executive and the company.
Neither individuals nor corporations (groups of individuals) like to be embarrassed. So to avoid embarrassment, they sometimes tell the press and public half-truths which are (half-lies).
Understandably, nobody likes to admit that business is bad, that employees must be laid off, that a new product introduction has been unsuccessful, that the company has "goofed" in one way or another. Yet telling the truth remains the best answer.
How much truth should a company tell? My experience answers, "As much as the reporter wants to know." When an executive change is announced, probably 99 out of 100 reporters will be satisfied with that bare fact, and ask nothing more. But once in a while a keen reporter may respond, "Mr. Jones, I've heard that you held Mr. Smith responsible for the severe drop in earnings your company had last year. Is that true?"
First of all, if the allegation were true, I would not deny it, denial would only lead to a loss of credibility later when the reporter confirmed it from another source But neither would I invite a libel suit from Mr. Smith by blaming him for the company's problems. So the question might be answered, factually but tactfully, "When economic conditions are difficult, companies frequently make management changes and that's what we've done."
Executives, already fearful of the power of the press, find themselves terrified at the thought of having to report bad tidings. Countless examples can be found in the business press of attempts to conceal, or to grudgingly admit only portions of the truth, when it is unfavorable to the company.
My experience, however, convinces me that while the press and public do not like to hear bad news and will judge the company or its management adversely because of it, fair-minded people will understand that the difficulties of management make unavoidable a certain number of errors in judgment.
Thoughtful people understand that no one is perfect, that each of us makes errors despite his or her best judgments and best efforts.
What the public will not understand or tolerate, however, is dishonesty. Concealment and lying will be neither forgotten nor forgiven by the press and public alike. Evidence exists to confirm this. An example can be found in the aviation industry.
In earlier years, whenever a commercial airliner crashed, certain airlines had standing policies to rush work crews to the site and to paint out the company name and emblems on the wrecked aircraft before photographs were permitted.
Today, that policy has changed. Most carriers currently cooperate fully with the media, furnish all available information, and provide all assistance needed for news coverage. The theory; and I believe it is the correct one, is that the crash will be reported anyway; the name of the airline will be headlined anyway; so it is better to cooperate with the press and get the story covered and forgotten as quickly as possible.
10. Do not exaggerate the facts.
The American Bakers Association may have done just that. The president of the Public Relations Society of America, James F. Fox of New York, commented in a 1974 speech: "Last winter, we heard a great deal about an imminent wheat shortage and bread at a dollar a loaf this spring. Well, spring has about two weeks to go; the cost of wheat is down a little, and bread is nowhere near one dollar a loaf. What was that all about? Under Secretary of Agriculture J. Phil Campbell suggested that the bakers' move to reinstitute stockpiling was motivated by their desire to have government maintain wheat reserves to carry inventory for the industry and lower its costs.
"I don't know whether that's the whole story or even a part of it. It isn't necessary that we settle the facts here; whether, as Campbell implies, the industry's self-interest overcame its discretion, or it was depending in good faith on bad information or inadequate protections.
"What does concern us is that the American Bakers Association looks a little foolish now. It's going to be that much harder for them to make themselves heard and believed next time, when they might just be right."
Telling the business story to an apathetic or hostile nation is not easy, but it is worth doing, and it can be done successfully. As one senior executive in an engineering company told me:
"I've been interviewed frequently over the past 20 years, and every time afterward, I felt sorry for myself. But now, I realize that I just didn't know the rules of the reporter's game. Since I started playing the game too, I’ve had a much better press. In one case, I even got a sympathetic newspaper editorial in one of our plant communities, where we always used to get clobbered. It's convinced me to look on a press interview as an opportunity, rather than as a cause for fear.''
Lifetime Experiences in Dealing with Public Opinion and Public Relations Management
By Chester Burger, 1983
Chester Burger, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the founder and former president of Chester Burger & Co., Inc., a New York management-consulting firm serving corporate public relations departments and public relations agencies. Burger formerly was national manager of CBS Television News.
PRSA gave him its highest award, the Gold Anvil, and the PRSA Counselors Academy designated him "The Counselors' Counselor" and its first Life Member. The United States Marine Corps awarded him its first Drew Middleton Public Affairs Award for Distinguished Service. He is the author of six books on management.
You have honored me by choosing me to recall the leadership of Vern Schranz. Mr. Schranz and Ball Corporation early recognized the impact of public opinion on corporations and in over 25 years with Ball, he helped management earn the understanding and support of public opinion.
Your invitation has caused me to recall some of my own experiences trying to understand public opinion during the last 40 years. Today, I want to try to identify some of the lessons I have learned about how to influence public opinion. Allow me first to set the scene, so that you'll know the period in which my own outlook was developed.
I entered college in 1938. It was a difficult time. Not only was my family poor, but most everyone's family was poor. Unemployment was everywhere. Within two years, we would be evicted from our home because my father couldn't meet the monthly payments on a small mortgage.
War was on the horizon. Nazi Germany was rearming. Spain was aflame from Nazi bombings. In my own city, American citizens in Nazi uniforms and storm troop boots were spending their Saturday morning beating up Jewish shopkeepers on East 86th Street in Manhattan. In this setting I has absolutely no idea of what career path I should follow. Perhaps your problem is choosing a life direction is no easier in 1983 than it was for me in 1938.
At that time, there were virtually no jobs. There was the earliest beginning of a national defense program. I had a friend who worked in a machine shop. To prepare me for a job interview, he helped me to memorize some of the terms a machinist should know. I tried to bluff my way into a job. Unsuccessfully. If you have looked in vain for an appropriate job, you may be able to imagine my desperation and that of others in similar straits.
And when I finally got my first job, as an office boy, it was with a predominantly Jewish law firm. Most companies in those days wouldn't hire Catholics. Utilities wouldn't hire Italians. And practically nobody would hire Blacks, or Negroes, as they were known in those days.
Recalling my own experiences, I believe that all the pro-employer communications in the world couldn't have overcome the reality of racism and religious bias in hiring. It was wrong. It was offensive to ethics and morality. Yet America-not only business, but also labor unions, the churches and colleges lived with it, if not happily, certainly willingly accepting it with passivity. As Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Many good men did nothing. Public relations closed its eyes. Probably it was just as well. Public relations activity or communications can't overcome what is inherently wrong. It shouldn't try.
Today, when I see organizations permitting sexist bias, or racial and religious discrimination out of indifference or outright bias, I believe that although it may be a long time in coming, there will indeed be a day of reckoning for those responsible.
"Public relations activity or communications can't overcome what is inherently wrong. It shouldn't try."
This includes public relations itself. Since we are one of the last almost lily white professions in America, I believe that our day of judgment will come when our employers no longer accept our claim that we can help them to communicate effectively with employees and people in our plant communities. In most corporations, the body of employees represents a more accurate cross-section of the America of 1983 in its racial and ethnic diversity than we do in public relations.
Back in my college days, we asked ourselves who and what was the cause of unemployment, racism and religious hatred? One group asserted that it had the answer, with a certainty that now seems frightening in its intensity and its vehemence. This group said the cause was capitalism and the capitalists. The solution was communism, communism as it was being developed in the Soviet Union under Comrade Stalin. Only communism could eliminate poverty, racism and unemployment, and indeed that was, we were told, exactly what was being done in the USSR.
I believed much of this propaganda, as did, to some degree, many of my fellow students and many other Americans. Hard to believe in 1983, but nonetheless true. In the convoluted logic of the Left, it was not Hitler who threatened war; it was Franklin Roosevelt. It was not capitalism that offered a future for us; it was socialism Soviet style. It was not American democracy that offered the possibility of ending racism, but Soviet democracy.
Endlessly, over the years, my mind has relived those years and my own naivete, and wondered what lessons could be drawn from them that might have relevance to today.
The conclusion I've drawn is that the most critical period of our intellectual, political and social development is the college years when we first emerge from the confines of our home environment and become aware of the larger world around us. This is the period when we leave home for the first time, when we become more conscious of our future lives and our careers and wonder what they will and should be, and what we can do about them. Of course, our attitudes at this point are strongly influenced by our home environment, by our families. "As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines."
But college is the time and the place when our attitudes form and our thoughts break out to larger horizons. The attitudes we develop in college years remain with us for the rest of our lives, to be changed only by the most powerful experiences, whether real or psychological.
Yet the college years are precisely the period when young people lack first-hand contact with the corporate America in which many will spend much of their productive years. Understandably, they are preoccupied with the demands of their academic work. They are being introduced to the culture and the history of the world. They are learning the physical sciences. Unless they happen to be studying engineering, they probably aren't studying economics. And unless they are seeking an M.B.A., they probably are learning little or nothing about the functioning of our economy. Outside of the graduate schools of business, their instructors may know little more than they of the factors that cause our society to function as it does, for better or worse. All that the professors know, for the most part, is, as Will Rogers put it, what they read in the newspapers.
In those distant years neither I, nor my fellow students, nor my professors knew anything at all about the reality of business. We, too, only knew what we read in newspapers. It was one thing to read about it. But we had never been in a factory. We knew no one who had. Nor had the professors. Accordingly, we were perfectly willing to believe all the propaganda of the Left that businessmen were greedy and bigoted, uncaring Philistines. It was quite inconceivable to me that circumstances and the accidents of fate would someday place me near the center of the business community, to discover for myself how wrong those beliefs were. So ever since, it has seemed to me highly desirable that the business community exposes itself personally to young people and to college students, especially. Not to propagandize about free enterprise or the so-called "glories of capitalism," but simply to answer their questions, to stimulate their interest, and to present reality. Junior Achievement (aimed at secondary schools) is one modest version of the type of activity I have in mind.
This segment of our national population, the young people, deserves more attention than it is receiving from professional communicators. Whether we want to discourage people from smoking, or to encourage them to take up careers in science and technology, or to prefer Wheaties over Corn Flakes, or to understand the advantages or disadvantages of labor unions, we should be considering and strategizing how we can open an honest dialogue with young people. The return on investment will be slow in coming, but I believe it will be enduring.
It is strange that so little activity of this type exists. I understand why. Businessmen have lives of their own, activities of their own, pressures of their own. Either they lack the time to seek out opportunities for dialogue, or they have higher priorities. I believe companies should pay more attention to this problem.
I am a great believer in reality and substance, more than in image and presentation. Like many people who grew up in the years after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, when the powerful industrial unions were taking form, I believed in the nobility of Labor's cause, and its claim to be fighting for social justice.
I believed, for instance the union horror stories about "speedup" on the assembly lines. From Walter Reuther's era to the General Motors strikes at the Lordstown, Ohio plant in the 70s, my image of an automotive assembly line had been formed by union propaganda. It was reinforced by that hilarious sequence showing Charlie Chaplin in a frenzy on the assemble line in "Modern Times." I had never been in an automotive factory. How could I have known reality differed?
Then one day a few years ago, I visited the River Rouge plant of Ford, and saw it for myself. What a surprise! It wasn't what I expected. Some workers were lounging with cigarettes and coffee. Along the conveyor came a car. The power tools were hanging in front of each worker at exactly the right height. A little push and in went the screws. Then back to coffee. One man went back to reading his magazine. Right in front of my eyes there was no "speedup." Boredom, yes, but not "speedup." If the UAW had succeeded in slowing the production line, there would have been still more boredom.
It wasn't at all as the UAW described. And I thought to myself that if I had got into a bargaining fight with unions, I'd invite the public to see for itself what working conditions really were like. Most of the union claims would collapse in the face of reality.
To generalize from this specific experience, I've observed that seeing for yourself is most persuasive. Much more so than words, photos or videotapes aren't as good as first hand viewing. But they are more persuasive than words.
Reality is a powerful teacher. Companies ought o let those whose opinions are important to it see for themselves. Every company, of course, flies security analysts out to see the new factory. But I believe much more should be done with other groups of the general public to let them see for themselves what American industry is like and how it meets the needs of the nation.
Too often, we accuse the media, especially television, of unfairness and abuse of power. All through the years, I've heard charges and seen evidence of unfairness. But I've come to believe that very often, we get what we deserve in life, and that to a considerable degree, the business community deserves what criticism it receives. When Kuhn Loeb, the investment Wall Street banking firm, merged some years ago with Lehman Brothers, the president was asked about layoffs.
"When you have redundancies," he said, "you get rid of the redundancies." They're not human beings; they're "redundancies." That expression reveals indifference to human considerations and brings deserved criticism to all businesses.
So I've learned not to blame the media for unfairness unless they have really been unfair. If business hasn't divulged the facts, or if business has acted or spoken insensitively, then it had better listen to its public relations professionals and change its ways instead of complaining about media bias.
I don't want to give you the impression that my public relations philosophy is based primarily on the experiences of my youth. Over the years, both as the head of the largest public relations firms, and for 19 years as head of management communications consulting firm, I've studied hundreds perhaps several thousand public relations programs. Most of them have seemed to me a waste of time money and effort. Most of them have been trivial or inconsequential or irrelevant to reality, to the problems of the corporation or society.
From this exposure, I've observed a distinguishing characteristic of those that seemed to me most effective. The best public relations programs harmonize corporate self-interest with the public's interest. The Alliance of American Insurers, for example, has consistently used creative programs to promote public safety in the interest of the insurance industry.
What saves lives and avoids automotive accidents, for' example, serves the public interest and also cuts costs for the insurers. By way of example, the Alliance is urging drivers who have CB radios to report to the highway patrol when they see a car being driven in an erratic and possibly unsafe manner. That is a sound public relations — serving the public interest as it serves the industry's self interest.
Another lesson I've learned is that while service in the public interest makes more friends for a company than does simple corporate self-interest, it's nevertheless desirable for a corporation to specify its corporate self interest to establish credibility. In one recent case, a company seeking a tax benefit for a local plant emphasized that it would increase corporate profits and thus enable the company to expand the factory and create additional jobs. The admission of increased profits gave the ring of credibility to the promise of more jobs. The public interest concerns the public more than does corporate self-interest. But emphasizing the private self-interest of the audience seems even more powerful still. That lesson is important.
Few people act to advance the public interest, or the common good, whatever that may be. They work to advance their self-interest, or at least, their self-interest as they perceive it, or as their leaders present it to them.
"The best public relations programs harmonize corporate self-interest with the public's interest."
Altruism exists, yes indeed, but I wouldn't want to base a major campaign on the hope that it will show itself. The more frequently used technique is to present people's self-interest as the public interest. For example, some organizations of the aged have done this. They conducted a public relations program on the basis that any attempt to cut back on Social Security benefits is an attempt to cut back on benefits they themselves have already paid for. The reality is somewhat different. Their public relations materials don't state that people who retire at age 65, who have paid maximum social security taxes right along with a spouse who doesn't work outside the home, will receive benefits equal to his or her total contributions over the years they worked, in just 11 months after retirement.
This isn't to discuss the real needs of the aged. It's to discuss the manipulation and perceptions of an important public issue. It's to question whether broad public opinion has been formed on the basis of distorted information.
There are winners and losers in that set of facts about Social Security, as the public understands it. The winners are those drawing benefits many times what they paid in, for more years than anyone at the time the law was passed thought they would live. The winners are the public officials who were elected on the promise they'd preserve those benefits.
The losers are those who are paying for those benefits through salary taxes. The losers are those that will never collect the hoped-for benefits because the money won't be there.
Now you haven't heard the issue presented quite that way. Oh, no! It is presented as a matter of fairness and respect for the contributions of our fathers and mothers, in other words, in our interest. The senior citizens have proven their mastery of the techniques of persuasion in our democratic society. Self-interest has been masked with talk of fairness, moral responsibility and the like.
Self-interest is not always evident. The skilled persuader presents his or her self-interest in terms of how it serves your interest.
But people keep trying and keep hiring public relations people to present their case. Good for the counselors; bad for the advocates that accomplish nothing with their money.
Another lesson I've learned is that it's so difficult to communicate anything at all, that if you don't express yourself with simplicity, you're wasting your time. I saw one management memo that read, "In response to inquires regarding the equipment, it is felt that there would be no detrimental effect on the components comprising the terminals and/or station arrangement due to daily and weekend powering off."
That can be translated, "It's safe to turn off the equipment at night or over the weekend." How many communicators haven't learned that lesson? The problem seems to me has worsened today compared to 1938, when I first wrote about it. When people say that their home computer is "user friendly," I rather think they are "communications-confused," and probably "digitally-delirious" as well.
Other experiences have taught me that you can't communicate persuasively about an abstract principle, like the blessings of competition or free enterprise or dangers of unionism. You need specific examples. For example, the environmentalists weren't getting very far until an oil slick. That changed abstraction into reality. Wall Street didn't fully appreciate IBM's marketing skill until brokerage houses saw their employees buying IBM personal computers for themselves, at their own expense.
I have also learned that it takes a very long time to implant a new idea. Indeed, the old saying is true, "Just when the client is beginning to tire of the advertising message is about the time the public is just beginning to notice it." Look how many years it's taken for the proven association between cigarette smoking and cancer to penetrate mass consciousness and to influence our individual behavior. When you want to influence public opinion or individual behavior, you can't hurry things along.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. Some good ideas fail for the reason that public opinion isn't yet ready to accept them. On the other hand, when there is an idea whose time has come, no power on earth can halt it. Take for example, the breakup of the Bell Telephone System. For 107 years, it epitomized all of the best qualities of the nation's life. It provided a high quality of telephone service, the finest in the world. The boast was — and it was true-that 993 out of 1000 times — when you picked up your telephone to make a call, you'd receive a dial tone, meaning that a path was open to connect your call within three seconds; in other words, by the time the phone reached your ear. Bell provided a very low-cost service. On the average, a factory worker would need to work one hour and 20 minutes to pay his monthly telephone service. The lowest cost in the world, and Bell displayed a high degree of social responsibility. It achieved its goal, what Theodore Vail, the founder, called universal telephone service. That meant a service so inexpensive that everyone could afford it.
But Bell's success became its failure. Politicians slowly recognized that the public didn't like big companies, and especially they didn't like monopolies. Never mind that the service has been good. People don't like to be forced to do anything. And if you didn't like dealing with Bell, who else could you go to? Politicians — I don't use the word in a pejorative sense-are turned to public opinion more closely than are businessmen. Politicians are always campaigning for reelection. They don't have the long-term perspective of businessmen who must worry about survival in the long pull.
Gradually, over the years, public figures in the legislative, executive and judicial departments of governments at all levels came to believe that the Bell System must be smashed. It hardly makes sense to suggest that the political leaders misjudged public opinion, because the voters reelected them instead of turning against them in fury.
The Bell System had built what I believe was the most professional, the finest, and certainly the largest public relations organization in the United States. It planned skillfully; it communicated honestly and openly. Its effectiveness was close to optimum. And yet it failed, and 51 days from today, the Bell System will finally be torn apart and be no more.
I have had the honor of working closely as a consultant to AT&T for more than 28 years, and I have pondered long and hard as to what lessons could be derived from its failure to survive. And all I can see is that in our democratic society, public opinion simply fears organizations that are too large. Americans want independence, not dependence. Alas, the "sin" of Bell was that one in 82 working Americans were provided with good jobs in the Bell System; one and one-half percent of the gross national product of the United States was being spent on telephone and telecommunications service through the Bell System, and that was just too much. Of course, benefits, as well as damages, will emerge from its destruction and only time will record whether the benefits outweigh the damages.
Professional communicators must sense the basic trends of public opinion and ride with them, not against them. Unless you're in harmony with the basic currents of the times, your public relations efforts won't get very far.
In a democratic society like ours, every man may speak his piece, both wise men and fools. Thomas Jefferson believed that a free people could withstand the errors and the fools better than our country could withstand the suppression of wrong or dangerous ideas. B.W Scripps said, "Give light and the people will find their own way."
So we must accept the presence of demagogues in our society, those who agitate and inflame public discourse, to preclude thoughtful discussion. And we must hope that calmer judgments and more thoughtful analysis will offset them. Look at the Love Canal experience, how Hooker Chemical-now Occidental Chemical-was pilloried by a group of "Love Canal Mothers" long after state and scientific bodies had determined there was .no evidence whatever that illnesses had resulted from the storage of chemical wastes there. The press reported in some detail how the "Love Canal Mothers" had reshaped their daily routines to meet the requirements of the television crews.
It was years later before The New York Times, on May 18, 1983, told the story: "U.S. Study Finds No Links Between Love Canal and Disease." If you didn't know that, it might be worthwhile for you to investigate the whole story of the Love Canal especially the new EPA study that will go on until 1988. This is a study that will decide how to reseal the contaminated area that had been broken open by the municipal authorities in 1953, despite public warnings of danger by the Hooker Chemical Company. In this new study, EP A will also determine whether it's safe to live in the area. But there's still no evidence of any link to disease.
Public relations professionals familiar with the events believe that the entire Love Canal disaster probably wouldn't have happened if the true facts had been disclosed right at the beginning, and the public had been given proof that Hooker had acted properly, responsibly and safely. It was not an unfair press that caused the problem but an ill advised corporate management that remained silent in the hope that they would be vindicated in the courts of the law. The lesson that I extract from this is that in today's America, public opinion will always believe the worst about you unless you tell your side honestly, completely and speedily.
Professional public relations as opposed to amateurish publicity seeking, must communicate to management as well as for management. Public relations professionals must have the wisdom, the tact, and the integrity to persuade management that when unfairness or injustice exists in corporate policy or practice, it should be eliminated. Public relations professionals neither are or should they be "the corporate conscience." But I believe we have the responsibility to seek change, where appropriate, the realities of corporate life, not merely to communicate existing corporate policies persuasively. This responsibility is inescapable for public relations professional.
America is one of the few nations where public relations thrive, because America is one of the few nations where public opinion strongly influences government and corporate policy. As I recall my own lifetime experiences as a communicator, I am convinced that the public relations counsel, when informative and honest, stimulates the vigor of dialogue in our society. And as irritating as the cacophony of conflicting voices can sometimes be, our country is stronger for the dialogue that public relations helps provoke.
Jesus, the communicator
Lifetime Experiences in Dealing with Public Opinion and Public Relations Management
By Chester burger, 1983
Today we heard from the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Jeremiah the story where Jeremiah tells us how God spoke to him directly, not in a dream. Jeremiah was probably about 24 years old at the time. God appoints Jeremiah a prophet to preach righteousness to the people. Jeremiah replies to God, "Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." The Lord answers Jeremiah, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy.' For you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you." "Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me, 'Now I have put my words in your mouth…"' [Jeremiah, ch. 1, v. 4-9]
This story holds special interest to us, because first, it tells us that God sometimes communicates directly with people, as the Lord did with Jeremiah. And second, it tells us that God sometimes communicates with us indirectly through people like Jeremiah.
Forty-eight years of my life were spent in the communications field, mostly figuring out how to persuade people to change their minds about one subject or another. So I'm going to talk about how God communicates with us, how we communicate with each other, and how the Bible can teach us something about communicating, something that could affect the way we live.
And the first lesson about communicating — to persuade — is the importance of faith. Not "facts" but faith. In Matthew, we read that Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you." Jesus didn't talk about shovels or bulldozers to move mountains but about faith. [Matthew, c. 17, v. 20]
I suppose that everyone considers herself or himself to be something of a good communicator. But you can very easily separate the amateurs from the professionals, the sheep from the goats. Just wait until someone tells you that to persuade people, you simply need to give them "the facts." More often, it's not "facts" but faith that's required to change people's minds. Faith in the source of the message. If we have faith — trust — in the source, we believe and we accept.
Facts Alone Are Not Enough
In my experience as a professional communicator, I can recall very few (if any) cases where people changed their minds because "the facts" were presented to them. Years ago, the American Cancer Society recognized that one word from your physician would be more apt to persuade you to stop smoking now that all the newspaper and magazine articles, public service ads, or warning messages from the Surgeon General printed on the side of the cigarette packs. So the Cancer Society shifted its persuasion away from the general public and to physicians. They urged doctors to advise patients to stop smoking for the sake of your health. You were more likely to trust your doctor than any printed message.
Professional communicators understand the need for a trustworthy source. That's why, for example, so many companies publish their ads in the National Geographic rather than in, say, the National Enquirer. Or why so many public relations people try to persuade The New York Times to cover their news stories. Faith and trust in the source means everything. The National Geographic and The Times are trusted — justifiably.
And what is our faith that there is a God but our trust? No "facts" exist that prove to you or to me that there is a God who created us and who loves us. Yet, I believe it. When I look at the world around me, I believe that only God could have created our world, our universe, our cosmos. When I pray to God and wonder if the Lord hears what is in my heart, my life experience has given me faith that sooner or later, in God's way — not mine — my prayers will be answered. Sometimes, I don't recognize God's response when it comes. The Lord doesn't speak to me as God spoke so clearly to Jeremiah. But some time later, often much later, I recognize that things in my life have changed, perhaps even that I have changed in ways I could hardly have foreseen. My recognition comes from faith in God, not "facts."
When you spend (as I did) your entire working life trying to communicate effectively and to persuade, you get to know what works and what doesn't. Jesus used his own special style to communicate. He usually made his point through a parable — telling a story in a way that people could understand. Jesus used parables and analogies to bridge the gap between what his audience already accepted, and what he was trying to persuade them to accept. A parable helps us to understand the broader principle illustrated by the story.
Stories Help Make the Point
Remember the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep? In Jesus' time, the land of the Israelites was a primitive agricultural economy. People worked as farmers and shepherds and vintners in all the little villages. So when Jesus wanted to preach about the worth of every human being, even the smallest child, he illustrated his point by talking about a shepherd and a lost sheep. It was a story everyone could identify with in those days.
"If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost." [Matthew, ch. 18, v. 12-14] If Christ had simply said, "Every child is important to God," would we remember it so vividly?
Jesus used parables to bridge the gap between what his audience already accepted, and what he was trying to persuade them to accept.
Then remember the story in Matthew's Gospel of how Jesus handled things when he was accused — accurately too! — of hanging around with no-good folks like tax collectors and sinners. He answered, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" [Matthew, ch. 5, v. 43-47]
It's that reference to the hated tax collectors that drives home the point. With that reference, Jesus made his point in a memorable way: even those lowest of the low, the tax collectors, deserve to be loved as human beings. We need to remember that lesson with September 15th coming up in a couple of weeks on the IRS tax calendar.
Of course, Jesus wasn't always simple and clear. Not all those who heard him understood him, especially when he spoke in parables. Sometimes he was deliberately obscure. On one occasion, his puzzled disciples asked him, "Why do you speak to these people in parables?"
He answered them this way: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given… The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing, they do not listen, nor do they understand. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you hear, but did not hear it." [Matthew, c. 12, v. 10-17]
Seek a receptive audience
This is a lesson that public figures of our day recognize immediately: Don't waste you breath on those who don't want to listen. Direct your messages primarily to those who are most likely to be receptive.
And he gave us another lesson in communicating: being believed is much more difficult to accomplish than getting attention. Practice what you preach; your actions do indeed speak louder than your words. Don't be a phony. Don't say things that you don't really believe. Instead, say what you really believe in your heart to be true.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spoke of those who prayed to God not because they wanted their prayers to be heard, but because they wanted people to see them praying. He said, "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly, I tell you they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not be like [the Gentiles], for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." [Matthew, ch. 6, v. 5-8]
Don't say things that you don't really believe. Instead, say what you really believe in your heart to be true.
When we communicate today, too often our highest priority is: don't offend anyone at all by anything we say. Jesus didn't believe that. Jesus taught us that telling the truth is more important than winning a popularity contest in public opinion. Telling the whole truth instead of half-truths. He stood at the foot of the mountain and told his newly-appointed disciples, "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for surely your reward is in heaven... Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets." [Luke ch. 6 v. 22-23]
Think of the impact of Jesus' ministry — only three years in its entire duration from the beginning at the wedding in Canaan to the ending on the Cross — three years that rocked the Roman Empire, challenged the religious structure of the Israelites, and changed the world. Some very powerful message must have been communicated by the incarnate Jesus. Is there a preacher — a televangelist — even a President or a King or a Prime Minister who can today make a comparable impact, even with all the marvelous electronic communications technology at her or his disposal?
After Jesus was gone, there was a problem of communicating his message to the generations that followed. Paul was the first to attempt this. His style was simple, direct, personal. We see this in all of his letters. No obscure parables for him. In Paul's first letter to the struggling little Christian community at Corinth in Greece, he demonstrated the first rule of good communication: it must be unmistakably clear if it is to be understood. Talk — if you prefer — in "tongues" — or in high-flown words, but don't expect folks to understand you. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Corinthians: "And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves: if in a tongue, you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air..." [I Corinthians, c. 14, v. 8-9, RSV].
Listen for God's word. That is the message of the Scriptures to consider and remember and faithfully apply the moral values by which we live, so that when our time comes, we may say, as Paul wrote to Timothy, "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith." [2 Timothy, ch. 4, v. 7]
That's why we come to Church — to remind ourselves to be true to our best instincts — to be able to say, "Yes I have kept the faith."
Chester Burger spent most of his 48-year working career in the communications field. He joined the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1941 as a Page Boy, and left in 1955 as National Manager of CBS Television News. During World War II, he served with the U.S. Army Air Force. After entering the public relations field, he became president of Communications Counselors. During the years of the civil rights campaigns, Burger served as an officer and member of the Board of Trustees of the National Urban League. The United Negro College Fund awarded him its Distinguished Service Citation. He was a member of the Board of Directors of Union Theological Seminary, is an ordained Elder of Central Presbyterian Church in New York and was President of its Board of Trustees.
Address to the North Texas Chapter, Public Relations Society of America at Park City Club, Dallas, November 20, 1997, on the occasion of PRSA's 50th Anniversary.
The last time I spoke with your chapter was a breakfast meeting at the Chapparal Club seven years ago. Before that, fourteen years ago. And still earlier, almost 20 years ago. So I was sorely tempted to dig out ore of those old speeches and use it again. That's assuming it would still be relevant. Well, I haven't done that. I'd rather look ahead for leadership than deal in ancient history.
But just one personal note: coming back to meet you again, I'm amazed to find that after all these years, I seem to be the only one who has aged.
And along with me, perhaps public relations itself has aged. Just as with the aging process for individuals, perhaps our own vision of our profession has become clouded. Maybe we're no longer seeing things as clearly as we need to, in order to survive — and thrive — in the new millenium. And surely, only if we lift the cloudy veil and see very sharply what's happening around us can we can lead change in our profession, in our organizations, in our corporations, our agencies.
Yes, technology has changed dramatically the work of a public relations professional in recent years. Instead of mailing out news releases, or even using bicycle messengers to deliver them personally, as we used to do in New York City, today you use PR Newswire or the Web, or broadcast fax, or satellite distribution. Instead of selecting individual editors and media you want to target, you let those wonderful computer programs do it for you ¬more thoroughly, more accurately, and much more quickly than you yourselves could do. Granted, technology has fundamentally changed our professional work. But that's not the most important change that has happened to public relations.
What has changed fundamentally — and I think, to our detriment — is that we have increasingly positioned ourselves as communications experts rather than as public relations professionals. As a consequence of what we have done to ourselves, management more and more often has been skipping over us and turning to others to head the public relations function. Lawyers, financial people, marketing people. You name it.
Why has this been happening? I think the reason is that some folks have lost sight of what public relations is all about, what we are supposed to be doing. Public relations is about how our organizations relate to the public. Public relations isn't getting publicity. That's a tool. Publicists can use it. Public relations isn't lobbying. Lawyers can do that. Public relations isn't doing worthwhile community activities. Human resources people can do that.
Public relations isn't "making the boss look good." Flatterers and opportunists can do that. Public relations isn't product publicity to support the marketing effort. Product publicity is a powerful tool. But it is only a tool of public relations.
Public relations is all those things, surely. But it's something much deeper and broader than all of these tools put together. It's studying and understanding how to influence public opinion. We have, or should have, or should try to have, special qualification to influence public opinion and subsequent action. Public relations is researching and measuring and judging what our corporation or client must do to survive in the turbulent democratic society that surrounds us. And then having the ability to apply what we've learned.
Most lawyers aren't trained to do that. Don't think that Kathy Fitzpatrick is typical — professionally trained as an attorney and also as a public relations professional. There aren't many Kathy Fitzpatrick's around. Most lawyers are trained to help the corporation survive and prosper only in the world of law and contracts and litigation — argument in the courtroom. A lawyer friend of mine tells his favorite lawyer joke: "The preferred method of birth control among lawyers is their personalities." The best lawyers are fighters, combatants. Perhaps angry people inside. Perhaps quiet spoken, well-mannered and smooth. But fighters nevertheless. Their concern is to win the fight. To them, public opinion is secondary. If you've ever heard legal counsel advise the CEO to say, "No comment," you will recognize how many attorneys think.
And publicists aren't trained primarily to influence public opinion. They're trained and skilled in getting a story into the media. They have expertise at making a story interesting, newsworthy, favorable to their employer. A really good publicist knows how to develop "angles" that will stimulate an editor's interest. Successful publicists judge themselves by how much publicity they get. A tough calling! They measure it by the inch and the yard and sometimes, clippings or videotapes by the pound. Sometimes, they try to calculate its cash value by comparing it to the cost of advertising space. (That's a no-no).
Marketing people are trained to identify the most likely purchasers of a product or service, and then to be able to figure out the most efficient and least costly way' to communicate the message to them. They know the most persuasive way to tell customers why they should make the purchase. Nothing is more important to a corporation's survival than that. A skilled product publicist is very important indeed, and that's why CEO's value them so highly. But product publicity and marketing support aren't the whole story, either.
All of these experts are very important indeed ? the lawyers, the accountants, the marketers, the publicists. And let me add one more category to the list of very important people: the Information Technology people. Corporate survival requires the IT people. Look what's happening right now to the once-great Union Pacific Railroad. Since the Union Pacific merged with the Southern Pacific Railroad, their IT people have so far failed to merge the two different data systems. Whole trainloads of perishable goods are reported as running back and forth across the southern desert — lost for weeks to the shippers, to the destinations, and even to the railroad itself. In this disaster, you can understand that IT people are not one bit less important than public relations people. So let's stop saying that public relations people should have a preferential seat at the elbow of the CEO and have his ear. While we're at it, let's stop our arrogance in trying to educate the CEO to the value of public relations.
Instead, let's try to improve our skills in public relations, in the art of influencing public opinion favorably toward our organizations. I'll give you several examples of the difference between being a "communications expert" and a public relations professional.
The current issue of The Public Relations Strategist carries Steve Crescenzo's article about public relations at the Walt Disney Company. If you missed the issue, I urge you to track down a copy and read it thoughtfully. The gist of it is that Walt Disney has the best product publicity you can get, the best publicity marketing support you can get. But no more. And a lot less. Crescenzo found that The Disney Company doesn't practice public relations.
Its management obviously fears the media. It gives signs that it fears its own employees.
Great publicity, and yet an absence of corporate public relations, have engendered attacks and boycotts from assorted groups ranging from the Southern Baptist Convention, who didn't like the way the company regarded Gays, to some Native American activists who didn't like the way Disney portrayed Pocahontas. Some feminist activists are attacking the company also, complaining that Disney sends "the wrong message to girls." The Catholic League doesn't like The Disney Company because the League doesn't like a program on ABC Television, which Disney owns.
My experience tells me that in the long run, these attacks, which The Disney Company seem to consider as "little details" will add up to big trouble. The Company's non-public relations policies may be giving rise to a public impression of a big institution that cares only about today's box office receipts, and not too much about what little country will think about it tomorrow.
Indeed, look at the price of Disney stock, and you know that the company is riding high these days. The boycotts have made no difference at all to the company. But public opinion changes very slowly in favor of, or against, an institution. And by the time public opinion, whether positive or negative, has crystallized, it will be too late to create a public relations program to save things.
And that brings up a personal experience of my own that illustrates the difference between sound public relations policies on one hand, and good publicity on the other. In that same current issue of The Public Relations Strategist that I mentioned a moment ago, Fraser Seitel, the editor, included an article I wrote about the massive public relations activities designed to save the Bell System back in 1983. At that time, an army of 1,700 public relations people were employed in the Bell System. In my article, I expressed the opinion that the AT&T public relations people had conducted a superbly thorough and very expert professional public relations program. But they failed because in tile late 1970's and early 1980's, public opinion had turned totally sour and hostile to all the large institutions of our society.
A dozen years later, it is clearer now than it was to us then why the effort failed. It really didn't make much difference what public relations did or didn't do to defend the Bell System. Public opinion just didn't care one way or the other what happened to the Bell System. They didn't care because many — or most — Americans already had lost trust in both their government and all large institutions in the nation. This resulted from both the Vietnam War and Nixon's crimes of Watergate. The AT&T Company surely was also a victim because at that time, it employed over one million people. Much too big to be trusted.
Well, that's the way I see it a dozen years later. But now, a close friend has suggested to me that maybe I'm wrong. My good and old friend, George Hammond, who was President of the Public Relations Society of America, in 1969, and was Chairman of Carl Byoir and Associates, sees it differently. George says it indeed was a public relations failure. Our public relations failure. He believes that AT&T could have won its fight for survival if years earlier, it had been carrying out a two-pronged public relations program and policy.
As to its public relations activity, George Hammond feels that its 1,700 public relations people, should have more sharply focused their communications effort on telling the public what the Bell System was doing to serve them; to show how it operated and why it believed that it served the public interest.
Even more important, as to policy, its Board of Directors, its officers and its public relations leaders should have questioned every single day whether its basic corporate policies still served the public interest. George feels that a change was needed not simply in its public relations activities, but in its very substance as a corporation. Criticism of the telephone monopoly was growing; communications technology was undergoing a revolution — wireless, digital, fiber optics, and so on. Perhaps telecommunications had become too big for one company to provide exclusively. Perhaps the AT&T corporate structure had outlived its usefulness to the public and needed change.
Instead, the Board defended its entrenched hundred year-old monopoly. A sound public relations policy would have explored whether changes were needed to allow AT&T to survive in a new competitive environment. In other words, George Hammond emphasizes, public relations isn't just communicating, however effectively it's done. Good public relations means relating to the public by best serving the public interest. That lesson obviously hasn't reached the officials of the Walt Disney Company.
Then there is the tobacco industry. This is the industry that has grown and prospered mightily for the last fifty years by selling more cigarettes every year, even if they have to go to Eastern Europe to reach those record-breaking sales figures. This is the industry that in 1953 received John Hill's counsel from Hill and Knowlton to sponsor honest independent scientific research to find out whether cigarettes really did cause cancer. (It wasn't quite so certain forty or fifty years ago, even though the evidence pointed in that direction.) Well, you know the story. Litigation discovery has revealed internal corporate documents that tell us what the managements knew at the time. The tobacco companies did research all right. But whenever the results were harmful to the companies, they suppressed the data, stopped the research, and said nothing. Nothing about the research anyway. Instead, this was what we heard: I read from Insight Magazine, May 19, 1986, from an interview with Gerald H. Long, then the president and chief executive officer of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Question: Have you ever had personal doubts about being involved in the tobacco industry when you have thought of some of the health consequences of smoking?
Answer: I smoke a little over one pack a day. I have four grown children who have the right to smoke if they want to, or not. Two of them smoke, and two of them do not smoke. That is their own personal choice. If I saw or thought there were any evidence whatsoever that conclusively proved that, in some way, tobacco was harmful to people, and I believed it in my heart and my soul, then I would get out of the business and I wouldn't be involved in it. Honestly, I have not seen one piece of medical evidence that has been presented by anybody, anywhere that absolutely, totally said that smoking caused the disease or created it. I believe this. I'm sitting here talking to you with an extremely clear conscience.
Well, that was the industry's line for forty or fifty years. They got away with it while sales and profits soared. Their so-called public relations machine was awesome ? or was it their lawyers?
In some of those years, I was involved with the American Cancer Society, that great voluntary institution. I made more than one public speech on the record, saying it was easy to criticize the tobacco industry, but the question was, what constructive and helpful advice should public relations offer to the industry? My advice 20 and 25 years ago was: stop advertising and promoting cigarettes. Stop all of it. I said then that no one, not the most severe public health critics of smoking, favored a ban on smoking. The critics objected rather to the advertising, the sports tie-ins, the promotions to entice more young smokers. And I felt that if the leader — Phillip Morris and R. J. Reynolds — simply agreed to stop all advertising of whatever kind, public hostility would slowly diminish and finally stop. And their total promotional budget would suddenly become increased earnings. I seem to remember the figure at that time as about two billion dollars a year. And since nicotine even then was generally recognized as addictive, any decline in advertising and promotion would erode sales only very slowly over the years. Even if the companies stopped advertising, smokers wouldn't stop smoking. And if one single cigarette company announced that it would stop all its advertising, the two other leading cigarette companies would be forced by the pressure of public opinion to stop also. One company wouldn't gain an advantage over its competitors. That would eliminate brand switching, one company's brand gaining at the expense of another, which they feared so much.
Well, you know what happened: nothing. They ignored the suggestion. They increased their "public relations efforts" to buy goodwill. Cigarette companies' "public relations? consisted of providing financial support to the arts. Hardly a symphony orchestra, a ballet, a theatre company in our country hasn't been supported in substantial part by the cigarette industry. They effectively silenced the culture-loving intellectuals. When did you last read or hear a criticism of the industry from the intellectuals? The attacks on smoking have come instead almost entirely from the medical and scientific communities.
So now — years and years later — the roof is finally falling in on the tobacco companies. The details of the settlements remain to be worked out. My point is, the tobacco industry should have practiced public relations forty or fifty years ago. It seems inescapable that had they recognized that advertising and promoting cigarettes didn't serve the public interest, they would be a lot better off today. Instead, they practiced so-called public relations, phony public relations, that related to the public only insofar as it could conceal facts, lie, and distract with false issues like freedom of choice, and so on.
I want to make another observation about what we need to do if we are to lead changes in public relations. We need to recognize that a deep current of American public opinion is quite hostile to government and corporations generally. It is a residue of the events of twenty years ago. Where it manifests itself today, among other places, is in the jury box. Remember McDonald's spilled container of coffee? That was the incident where an 81-year old customer bought a container of hot coffee from McDonald's, sat down and held the paper container between her legs in order to remove the lid. When she pulled off the cover, some of the hot coffee spilled and scalded her. Her lawyers said McDonald's should have known better than to sell such hot coffee. They had found letters in the McDonald's file complaining about hot coffee. And there had been some cases of previous scaldings too. The jury agreed with the plaintiff that it was all McDonald's fault, and awarded her almost three million dollars in damages for her coffee spill. (That amount was later sharply reduced on appeal.)
But think a moment about that case. McDonald's survives by selling coffee the way people want it — very hot. Doesn't it look to you that the jury felt sorry for the poor woman and figured the big McDonald's had — as the plaintiffs lawyers like to say — deep pockets?
Now, I happen to think that McDonald's has one of the soundest public relations policies anyone could reasonably hope for, with a very high standard of integrity, sensitivity to the public interest, to the community. But that isn't and wasn't enough to protect McDonald's Corporation against a three million dollar damage award. McDonald's case is a prototype, a sharp example of the need of corporations and organizations to deflect or minimize the currents of hostility. To minimize such underlying hostility, it isn't better publicity that's needed. Corporate officers and public relations directors need to carefully examine corporate policies that may be antagonizing customers, employees and the general public unnecessarily. Public relations professionals should be looking at problems like this — not for vague idealistic reasons, but to estimate probable long-term consequences, whether for good or bad, for the corporation.
Of course, it isn't only corporations whose public relations officers need to look at the activities and policies of their organizations. What about the church leadership that chose not to prosecute its National Treasurer who had swindled several million dollars of church funds? It was well-intentioned but utterly misguided "compassion" that caused the Bishop to decide not to cooperate with the District Attorney. It outraged church members — the folks who had contributed the funds that had been stolen — who found the Bishop's decision morally offensive and irresponsible. When receipts from the Sunday morning collection plate suddenly dropped as a result, the church "leadership" reversed itself and then adopted a policy more in harmony with the public interest. They agreed to cooperate with the prosecutors. All the kindly words about "Christian compassion" couldn't outweigh a fundamentally wrong policy of excusing and rationalizing grand larceny.
It wasn't bad publicity that damaged the Church. It was a bad policy that needed correction, a policy that members perceived as being contrary to ethical standards of integrity and therefore contrary to the public interest.
Many Americans, including many public relations professionals, think that the "media" — to use Richard Nixon's favorite pejorative — create the public relations problems that corporations and non-profit organizations face. I don't share that viewpoint, even though I recognize the bias of some people in the media. In a free society, newspapers, television, magazines, now the Internet, are sacred guardians of our liberty against the corruption of power. Instead of blaming them for reporting the assorted sins they dig up, I would rather have us lead our organizations to do the right things in the public interest, and then we won't have to worry so much about what people say about us.
Someone said to me recently: "Everybody lies. But it doesn't matter, because nobody listens." Let's not play that game. Let's not play the game of superficial self-serving publicity. It's a dead-end for our companies, even though, as the cigarette industry has demonstrated, it's sometimes possible to get away with it for years and decades. Let's be leaders, in our profession and in our organizations, in our nation, by helping companies and organizations to adopt sound public relations policies that will justify public trust and earn their survival. That's where the future lies for all of us, for our profession, and for America too.
October 23, 2009: Ten Years Into the Future
Public Relations Society of America College of Fellows 10th Anniversary Dinner, Costa Mesa, California, October 23, 1999
Ladies and gentlemen, my friends, this is kind of strange. We're not even at 2000 yet, and already you’re asking me to tell you where we all may be ten years from now, on October 23, 2009. As the very first member of the College of Fellows, if I'm still around then, I hope you will invite me back that evening if my forecasts tonight prove accurate. Even tonight, it seems to me that the broad outlines of the future already look pretty clear. This is because our world ten years from now will necessarily be shaped by the culture, the science, the technology and the society that already surrounds us.
Let's talk first about communications. Some of our colleagues foresee a world deluged by communications. I think they're wrong. I foresee just the opposite, a world from which a large part of the communications clutter will have disappeared. This trend continues away from the mass media — away from lowest-common denominator television, away from mass magazines that appeal to broad public tastes, away from general interest Internet websites. These mass media will diminish, or perhaps even disappear, because even their most ardent fans don’t watch all their program, or read all their articles or visit all their pages on the Web. The parts that don't interest them, that they don’t watch or don’t read, may simultaneously, equally fascinate and absorb someone else.
“...communications will become more personal during the next ten years.”
There are many different publics, and people have differing tastes. In the world of 2009, advertisers won't have to waste their money on messages that go unread, whether on the Web, on TV or in newspapers and magazines. By that time, the media, using computer technology and inexpensive massive memory will have tailored themselves to your unique tastes and separately to those of your neighbors. You won't get junk mail, you won't find unwanted sections of your morning newspaper on your doorstep each morning. I'm not talking html. I'm talking just plain common sense.
The media cleanup shouldn't surprise you. On your websites right now, you preselect the kinds of news you want to receive. Even within the category of financial news, you select the particular stocks you are interested in and no other. That same selectivity will accrue to all media long before 2009. If the media can't let you choose, and instead appeal to everyone, they just won't survive.
So communications will become more personal during the next ten years. It seems equally certain, however, that your personal choices will diminish in other areas of our society. I have in mind especially transportation. Ten years from now, communication will have substituted for much transportation. Right now, above all in Southern California, nothing surpasses your personal automobile for convenience.
But our cities are choking with congestion. More cars are on the road than there is space on the freeways and streets to drive them. In major cities, we have simply run out of space to accommodate automobile traffic.
So I foresee an opposite trend in transportation, away from the personal convenience of door-to-door, point-to-point, that your car now provides. You will use mass transportation more than you do now. Mass transportation will thrive, especially better airline service. Probably the awful hub-and-spoke service we see now will end. You've heard the story of the commuter who lay dying, and the priest came to administer the Last Rites and Sacraments of the Church. And he said, "Son, have you thought where you’re going?" The commuter replied, "Father, I don't care where I go as long as I don't have to change planes in Atlanta." But where on earth can you find enough space, close enough to where people live, to build another major airport? In New York, JFK Airport is already as large as all of Manhattan Island south of Central Park. More or larger airports aren't a realistic answer. They won’t happen, not even begin to happen, in the next ten years.
“Increasingly, communication is replacing the physical action of getting you from here to there.”
We'll surely have better railroads, like the high-speed services about to begin in the Northeast. Better municipal transit systems too, as an alternative to using your own car. You can be certain that public mass transportation will improve. But it will take a lot longer than 10 years, probably more likely 50 years, to see significant change. Nevertheless, that's the direction in which society will be forced to move.
Of course, using your car less may not make much difference to you, because you will be traveling less to begin with. Business travel is starting to decline. This is due, of course, to teleconferencing, both by telephone and using internal corporate video networks. Increasingly, communication is replacing the physical action of getting you from here to there. It is simply becoming easier, more convenient, and a lot less expensive to communicate rather than to travel.
Many consequences are unpredictable. for example, when The New York Times first went on the Web, it published its full daily contents during the night, as soon as the paper went to press. But soon, it discovered, that wasn't enough. Within a few hours, its news had become stale and obsolete, while its competitors on the Web kept their news reports up to the minute, Now The Times does too. Once-a-day update has been changed to 24-hours-a-day update. What changes will that cause in their staffing, their management needs, and their operating budgets? Can you foresee what will happen in your firm and in your personal life, in a 24-hour day?
The Internet will drastically change our society in the next ten years. It will squeeze out middlemen fro every field: distributors, wholesalers, bankers, retailers -- almost anyone who comes between the manufacturer or owner and the final customer. If I can find on the Web the best terms for a mortgage loan, why will I need a local mortgage broker? I'll still want to try on my new suit in the store before I buy it, or test drive a new car. But I won’t need a department store or a franchised auto dealer to get the best price on the exact item I want. Carry the analogy into yow own situation and estimate the impact on your business and your life.
Many of you work to influence public policy for your employers or corporate and non-profit clients. You prepare your messages after careful research. You use focus groups. You fine-tune your message based on public opinion studies. You use computer systems to target your audience precisely. Yet, even if you are the very best, the most skilled at the are of persuasion, you are seeing only glacially-slow changes in public opinion. Because your opponents are using your same techniques, with equal effectiveness.
Public opinion is almost impossible to influence by communications these days. Only actual real-life events like wars, bombings, crazy gunmen running amok in schools, and the like, change public opinion. If you know someone who thinks she or he can do it, all I can say is, when that person’s IQ reaches 50, sell!
So, if you will find yourself increasingly powerless to influence public opinion, how will you be able justify your existence? What will you be doing?
You may not agree with me. You may tell me that you've successfully conducted product introductions and brand extension campaigns. You may tell me that public relations is more effective than I am suggesting. But on important social and cutural issues, consider, 60 years have passed since those pioneering researchers at Johns Hopkins first linked smoking to cancer. It took 60 years before public opinion crystallized against the tobacco companies. And the feminist movement didn’t begin with Betty Friedan, but was organized in 1848 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others. Seven or eight generations later, women still fight to end discrimination and glass ceilings. How many years will it take to convince Congress to enact gun control, or to simplify the Internal Revenue tax code? Don’t hold your breath.
“...all governments...will weaken and shrink by 2009....some government services will surely be privatized...”
Social change always moves imperceptibly, but today, we also see government policy at all levels increasingly paralyzed by deadlock. That is an inescapable result of the freest and most democratic society the world has ever known. Everyone has the communications ability resources to express her or his viewpoint in opposition to everyone else. This democratic deadlock is only one reason why I believe that all governments, both dictatorships and democracies like ours, will weaken and shrink by 2009. And the political process in a democratic society almost guarantees that governments — good or bad — can't provide public services as well as can private industry. Public officials need the votes of public employees to get reelected, and sometimes that employee self-interest conflicts with the broader public interest. Taxpayers in narrow self-interest often resist adequate funding for many essential public services. So some government services will surely be privatized by 2009, probably beginning with the FAA's antiquated network of airport control towers. The Postal Service won't be privatized, but email and the Internet will just keep fading it away, continuing the trend that caused it to lose Parcel Post business to UPS and Federal Express.
The most intriguing question about where well be in the next ten years is the quality of our leadership. Will strong leadership somehow emerge to unite squabbling public opinion and to harmonize some conflicting interests? In earlier eras, there was an Abraham Lincoln, a Franklin Roosevelt. No such potential leader has become visible today on our national scene. But history tells us that those leaders and many others did not emerge until war or crisis gave them the opportunity to lead. Where we'll find this leadership, and who it will be, is utterly unpredictable.
Looking ahead to October 23, 2010, I conclude by quoting exactly — verbatim — the stirring words of President George H. Bush as he uttered them in August 1990, and just as true today: "Now is no time to speculate or hypothecate, but rather a time for action, or at least, not a time to rule it out, though not necessarily a time to rule it in, either."
On that inspiring note, let’s move ahead into the new millennium.
1999 Interview for Jon J. Metzler's book on Management Consulting
Why Two Turnarounds Later, I Decided to Run My Own Business
In 1960, I was hired as president of McCann-Erickson's public relations firm. It was the first time I had ever run a corporation. When I arrived, I found a very sick operation. It was losing a quarter of a million dollars a year, which at that period and in the scale of public relations budgets, was an awful lot of money. In two years, I turned it around and it became very profitable. I learned a lot about how to manage. So it was a very valuable education to me. At this point, I was fired. There were internal political factors, maneuvering, that, even in retrospect, were beyond my control or my ability to influence.
“...when I turned a profit, my share of the dollars quickly became very substantial. That didn't make the owner very happy.”
But at just that same moment, I learned that one of McCann's clients was looking for a president. They knew my work from McCann, and they offered me the job as president. I had no other job offer to choose from, so I took it. And again it was a very sick corporate situation. The company was in imminent danger of bankruptcy. I walked into it knowingly. The company was losing money each day.
The owners "generously" offered me an attractive profit sharing plan because there was no profit for me to share. It cost the owner nothing to offer me a share of what didn't exist. Between 1962 and 1964, I succeeded in turning the company around, returning it to profitability. Well, when I turned a profit, my share of the dollars quickly became very substantial. That didn't make the owner very happy.
In the end, I decided there would be no future for me working for somebody else who owned the company. I was a "hired-hand president," so I took my profits and left and decided to try to run my own consulting business. This was more than 40 years ago.
I considered my past experience. First, it had been in public relations. Second, it was in management, because I had been running a very sizeable corporation. And I also liked the idea of consulting. Public Relations means many things to many people. For example, if I say to you "public relations" you'd probably think of publicity or promotion. I never did any of that. My involvement as president of McCann-Erickson's public relations firm principally consisted of talking to clients with problems and suggesting solutions, and I loved it.
What I didn't know when I began my firm was an answer to the basic question: could I sustain myself selling advice, or would I have to do operational work? "Operational work" is a euphemism for publicity and promotion. For example, would I have to turn to writing brochures or running publicity campaigns to survive? Implementation was the very thing I didn't want to do. Finally, I figured that the marketplace would settle the question for me.
“All we did was sell advice...”
I opened my doors on December 1, 1964 as Chester Burger & Co. Inc. My wife was the "& Co., Inc." Twenty years later, in '84, I sold the firm to one of my partners and I became an employee of the firm for a four-year transition period until '88. I retired totally on November 30, 1988. During that 24-year period, our firm never did any "operational work." We never involved ourselves in publicity or promotion. Not that there's anything wrong with publicity and promotion. It's just that that wasn't where my abilities or interests lay. All we did was sell advice, and we survived just fine. At the peak, we totaled 22 people, which is not bad if all you're doing is selling advice.
Clients: 33 Years without a Contract
In 1955, I began as a consultant to the AT&T company. I retired from active consulting in 1988. So, when I retired, I had been a consultant to AT&T for 33 years, either personally or through my company. And as far as I know, that is the longest consultant relationship the corporation ever had with anybody.
What's interesting about it was that I never at any time had a written contract with them. We were never paid a retainer of any kind. I don't say I wouldn't have liked to have received a monthly check. I would have loved to have had a steady income, especially in the early years when we were struggling to survive.
The chairman or the president would call me and say, "Hey, I have something I want to talk to you about. Could you come on down?" And I'd go down to company headquarters at 195 Broadway, and spend some time with him. We talked about the problem, and after we were finished, at the end of the month, I'd send a bill for the time spent, charged at an hourly rate. And it was always paid promptly. It went on like that for 33 years.
Sometimes a prospective client would say, "Okay, we want to hire you. How do you work?" And I'd tell them, "If you have a contract you want to send me, fine, send it along and I'll sign it." And they'd say, "Don't you have a standard agreement?" And I'd reply, "No. We'll write one if you want one, but we don't need it. If you don't like us, you can fire us, and that's all there is to it."
“...you don't depend on contracts, you depend on the trust of your client. If he doesn't trust you, you can forget it..”
I know that now this probably sounds terribly naive. But it worked for me. I can recall only two instances over my long career where a client wasn't happy with our work. In both cases, I remember saying to them, "If you're not satisfied with what we did, if you don't feel you received good value, then don't pay the bill. Just forget about it." In one case, they paid the bill anyway, apparently because they felt we had given advice in good faith and they trusted us. And in the other case, as I recall, they paid us less than the full amount. But whatever it was, I left it up to them. A lot easier than litigation.
That reflects an attitude that was basic to my thinking: you don't depend on contracts, you depend on the trust of your client. If he doesn't trust you, you can forget it. There's no relationship. And the point is that you've got to earn and deserve that trust.
Subjective Reality versus Objective Reality
I think this is the most important point that I can make. I think 99 1/2% of all consultants give all their attention to what I call objective reality, meaning how to help the client solve a particular problem. Some consultants are very good. Some are fair. Some are no good at all. But most are pretty good. They really do know how to help. They have particular professional skills to help the client.
In my experience, where many fail is the subjective part of the relationship. It's not that they lack the ability to help a client. They do help. But they pay no attention at all to the personal quality of their relationship with a client.
Here's what I mean. Suppose you asked me to criticize your work, and I began criticizing it. Give me the benefit of the doubt and let's assume that my criticism was really good, really insightful and constructive. How are you going to feel? You're going to resent it like hell. You're going to become defensive. You feel under attack. So you might tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about. Or you're going to feel stupid — "Why didn't I think of that? He must be smarter than I am." And so it's a no-win situation.
So again, assuming that it was good advice, the client will resent the fact that I thought of something that he didn't. Also, he's going to feel dependent upon me because I gave him an answer to a problem for which he didn't have an answer.
So there's an ambivalence to the relationship. There's both respect and appreciation for the help I'm giving him, and simultaneously, he resents the fact that he had to come to me to get it. I think this is at the heart of the problems that arise in consulting relationships.
“You” was a bad word. It was always “us.”
So what's the solution? First and foremost, the answer for me is to be intensely aware of how the client will feel if I give him the "right" answer. Secondly, I need to be aware that my client is absolutely no different from me. He doesn't like to be criticized. We're all that way.
So the consultant's dilemma is that on one hand, if I don't tell him the absolute truth, I have no value. I'm a phony. But, on the other hand, if I do tell him the truth, I must find a way to let him "save face." I need to find a way to let him psychologically accept the criticism I'm giving him, and not become defensive or resistant. That's where most consultants fail.
The client might tell me of some bad business or personnel decision he had made that caused the problem. I have no value to him or his company unless I tell him truthfully that it was an incorrect decision. But I've also got to make sure that he doesn't feel embarrassed or defensive. I want him to accept counsel to change the failed decision. So I might say to him, "Well, of course it was a mistake. But look, at the time, you couldn't have foreseen that. You did the best you could under the circumstances. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, we now can see that it was a mistake. Let's go on from there."
The moment a client recognizes that I'm not being judgmental, that I'm not condemning him, that I'm saving that we're all humans and we all make mistakes, then he will find it acceptable to consider to what I have to say.
So whenever my partners and I would enter a client situation, we would look on two levels at the problem we found. One was the objective level — what's the best way to help solve the problem? But we paid almost as much attention to the subjective level. How can we make psychologically acceptable to the client what we will propose to him?
Many people get into management consulting because they themselves have an inner need or desire to feel superior. After all, if you're a consultant, you're the person who's expected to know the answer. I believe that many consultants enter the field for that reason, unconsciously perhaps. We're all so damn human. We all have these shortcomings. But if for that reason we become consultants, we'll need constantly to struggle against the urge to lord it psychologically over the client, to make him feel stupid so that he can see how smart we are. This attitude in a relationship can lead only to disaster.
I always tried to overcome the distance between the corporation and me as the outside consultant. I would say, "Let's look at this problem we're facing here. Let's talk about what we can do." It never was a matter of what 'you' could do. That's the word I would never use. "You" was a bad word. It was always "us" working together.
I Kept Learning So Much
I had much joy, much pleasure out of my consulting work for 24 years. I kept learning so much. Let me tell you a story that was particularly memorable.
“You could see the excitement, the intellectual excitement these men were experiencing, even late in their careers. They couldn't wait to come to work in the morning. They absolutely loved their work.”
I had been working with AT&T since the '50s. One time in the '70s, they brought me in to the Bell Laboratories. At that time, Bell Labs was perhaps the greatest scientific research institution in the world. Certainly it was one of the greatest. I had never before had any personal contact with science or scientists. I had no education in the field of science, and had no interest in it. And all of a sudden, I'm meeting these great scientists. Two of them were Nobel Prize winners, Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson, whose work confirmed the "Big Bang" theory of creation.
These men probably were in their 50s or 60s at the time. You could see the excitement, the intellectual excitement these men were experiencing, even late in their careers. They couldn't wait to come to work in the morning. They absolutely loved their work.
I don't mean just those two Nobel Prize winners. I mean all the Bell Labs scientists were excited by what they were doing. Their enthusiasm opened to me an interest in science, for the first time in my entire life, and it has grown ever since. Consulting work really has stretched me to acquire new interests, and to learn new things. It's a happy and continual learning process.
Ethics: Trust is as Trust Does
If I were stupid enough to think that I could do ill or do wrong and get away with it for long, well, I'd be very naive and reveal my inexperience in the ways of the world. As a consultant, you may sometimes make an honest error of judgment and give a client advice that turns out to be bad or wrong. You try, in good conscience, to give the best advice you can. That's the only way to survive.
But giving the best advice you can at that time and not being right is a very different thing from deliberately giving poor advice because you think it is what the client wants to hear. An opportunist will be seen through quickly. Integrity isn’t a luxury. It's a business necessity for survival. When the truth begins to be seen, opportunism will ruin a person. There's no future in giving less than your best honest advice.
Recently, in retirement, I had a very interesting experience. I'm officially a member of an advisory council to the Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs. They've been taking me around the country, letting me see some of their operations and their problems. It's marvelously interesting. They took me down to Kirkland Air Force Base in Texas where the Air Force gives basic training to the volunteers.
During training, the drill sergeant is with these recruits from morning to night for the first six weeks of their basic training. He has almost total authority over their lives until they become full members of the Air Force. While I was down there, a sergeant told me that sometimes when he calls the men and women out for reveille at 5:00 in the morning, as they are moving into formation, he might notice one of them scratching his face. He waits until they are all lined up at attention and then he hollers out, "All right, the man who scratched his face, fall out." He said they never do. Never once did anyone ever step forward.
So then, he points to the recruit who scratched his face. "You, fall out." And the kid is terrified. "What am I going to do to him? 'I don't care whether you scratched your face or not. It makes no difference to me. But I care that you lied. Don't you ever lie again. The lives of these other men depend on you telling them the truth and your life depends on them telling you the truth. Don't you ever lie again."' The sergeant said that's how he makes his point and the new airmen never forget it.
“The contrast between the ethical values in the military and those of civilian college kids are like night and day.”
When I heard this story, in my mind, I contrasted it with the young people I meet, my grandchildren, youngsters at church, and in our neighborhood. Many are college-age kids. And the "vibe" that I'm getting from them is that in college the prevailing culture allows you to cheat as much as you think you can get away with. The contrast between the ethical values in the military and those of civilian college kids are like night and day. Now, I don't meet or talk with an accurate cross-section of college kids, so this may be inaccurate. But, for what it is worth, this is what I'm hearing.
Sooner or later, the lack of ethical standards catches up with you. Lying or telling half-truths will destroy the future for a management consultant as well as anybody else. I'm not preaching from the mountain-top about high-and-mighty ethical standards. I'm talking pragmatic, down-to-earth reality.
One gains credibility or trust by deserving it. A profound thought was expressed in a New York Times interview just before he died, by Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War in World War II under President Franklin Roosevelt. Stimson said, "The principal lesson I have learned in a long life is that the way to make people trustworthy is to trust them. And the way to make people untrustworthy is not to trust them."
If a client entrusts me with confidential information about a problem and I fail to respect that confidentiality, I'm through. And deserve to be.
Ethics; Client Credibility at AT&T
I had a long and deep relationship with AT&T, and was an adviser before and during the breakup. Understandably, the senior management of the AT&T Company absolutely opposed the breakup. They had long since decided to contest the Department of Justice's antitrust ruling. As I recall years later, at the peak, more than 900 lawyers worked in the AT&T Legal department.
They were proud of their management. They had a lot of good reasons for opposing breakup. First, telephone service was very good, the best in the world. It was inexpensive. It was almost universal; more than 99% of American homes had telephone service. Innovations were constant. One million Americans were employed by AT&T, "the telephone company." It was the largest corporation in the world. By any reasonable standard, their jobs and careers were among the most attractive in America.
The executives and managers, of course, had grown up in the environment of a regulated monopoly. They happily accepted their public responsibilities in return for being shielded from competition. It worked well for everyone. But monopoly was their only mindset. They had never faced competition. They didn't know how to cope with competitive upstarts on the fringes of the business. Their engineers were very, very good, and they took immense pride in the great network they had designed, upgraded and maintained. In the lobby of their headquarters building was a statue inscribed "Service to the Nation, In Peace and War." (The company long since sold the building, but the statue remains).
But now, times were changing. The telecommunications industry had become just too big for one company to run it all. AT&T then was so all-powerful that when they invented cell phones the FCC held up approval for a dozen years until the government could figure out a realistic way to let someone besides AT&T share in the action.
“Their senior engineering executives had nightmares about losing technical control of this vast and wonderful instrument they had created over a century.”
The senior management saw all these changes happening around them, but simply couldn't accept them as valid reasons for change. Their major reason for resisting the breakup — and I don't say it was right, I'm saying it dominated their thinking — was that if you deregulated the telephone industry and anyone could hook up a telephone to what they considered "their" telephone network, it was going to wreck the network technically. It would be harmful to the network. I am absolutely convinced that in their hearts they believed this more than anything else, that you just couldn't let everybody hook up everything to the telephone line without technical disaster. Their senior engineering executives had nightmares about losing technical control of this vast and wonderful instrument they had created over a century.
They were so insistent on protecting the network against "harm from interconnection" that they wouldn't permit you to attach an ordinary simple answering machine — which, incidentally, the Bell Labs also had invented — to your telephone unless you first installed what they called "an intermediate protective device." I wondered about this at the time, but since I was working for the company, was being paid by the company, and felt a sense of loyalty to the company, I duly ordered one, just to show that I was "a good soldier." In due time, they delivered an "intermediate protective device" to my office.
After it had been delivered, the installer came to connect it to my line. He struggled for awhile; it was the first "protective device" he had ever been asked to install, and finally he said, "I can't do it. The couplers don't match. The connections are different sizes." So I said, "Well, would you order the right ones?" And he said he would try. He ordered them, but they never arrived.
So in due time, I wrote to the vice president for network engineering, the right person in the company, a man I knew well. I told him what had happened and I said, "You're saying you've got to protect the network from my answering machine. But you don't even manufacture a coupler that fits. 'Protecting the network from harm' lacks credibility. Your case doesn't have much weight."
I didn't get any answer at all. That was very unusual because I knew personally all these people at a high level. They had always responded promptly to correspondence. It was most unusual. But this time, there was no answer. Finally, some time later, I received a letter from another of the senior officers saying, "Well, the reason we didn't answer your letter is that we didn't quite know how to handle it, so I'm sending you an unsigned letter that he prepared for you." It was an embarrassment. It said nothing substantial. It was evasive. Well, that began to tell me they really didn't have much of a case. Perhaps by that time, the engineers hadn't been able to develop persuasive evidence that answering machines and the like would "harm the network."
This incident destroyed for me their credibility on the technical issue. I didn't discuss ''harms to the network" any further with them. Instead, I began to explore and develop some of the other issues that could be sustained by honest research.
What It Takes: Integrity with a Human Touch
Two things I look for: number one, absolute integrity. Not a person who would say to me what he or she thought I wanted to hear. Number two, someone who had experience in management, not an MBA without worldly experience. Human relationships often are pretty messy. How do you handle people with hang-ups that impede their own performance? Everybody has some such. It's all of us. We all have our hang-ups. I want somebody who is sensitive to human behavior and whose experience is derived from pragmatic, practical work, rather than from a theoretical viewpoint.
Sooner Than You Think
Technology Pulling the World Together
Address delivered to the Windham World Affairs Council, Brattleboro, Vermont, June 23, 2000
My friends, I'm glad to be here with you, and I thank your Board. Jerry Carbone and my longtime friend David Ewing for inviting me. David is a stickler for the law, and even though he was inviting me only to visit for this talk with you. I was fully prepared for him to have me take the oath that your State Law requires of new voters, and to pledge that I’ll be of "a quiet and peaceable behavior." I promise. I also promise not to try to analyze the whole world, a subject beyond my limited experience and qualifications.
This evening, I want to talk solely about how technology is changing the world around us, the little changes that we see, and the bigger consequences of those changes, that we don't yet see. I want to show you — and pass around for you to see for yourself — an actual original presentation medal that I hold in my hand. I'll read the inscription:
"By resolution of the Congress of the United States, March 2, 1867, to Cyrus W. Field of New York, for his foresight, faith and persisting in establishing telegraphic communication by means of the Atlantic Telegraph, connecting the Old with the New World. Honor and Fame are the Reward. Indomitable Perseverance and Enduring Faith Achieved the Success."
It's not easy for us to realize that until a century and a half ago, there wasn't even a single physical connection between the old world and the new. If you wrote a message to Europe, you put it on a ship and sent it there. When the ship arrived, your message would be delivered by horse and carriage. It was only after the American Civil War that Cyrus W. Field combined the new technology of the steamship with the technology of the telegraph to lay the very first cable connection between the continents so that electricity in the form of dots and dashes could instantly deliver your message under the ocean to the other shore.
Significant communications developments are happening today. For example, recently, the international telecommunications companies completed a new undersea fiber optic cable linking San Francisco to Honolulu to Agana in Guam, to Okinowa, and finally to Japan. This new cable is just a few threads of glass carefully wrapped as protection against fishermen's dragnets. It will begin by carrying 600 thousand telephone circuits, able to carry 600 thousand simultaneous phone calls or faxes or Internet accesses. And with new optical technology, those 600 thousand circuits can be multiplied almost as needed and at negligible additional cost.
Immediate results will quickly become visible. How on earth can they get 600 thousand people in the USA to want to talk or e-mail or fax Japan at the same time, to keep all those 600 thousand circuits busy and producing a return on the capital investment? There's only one way: keep cutting the cost of use until it's so low that 600 thousand people will want to keep using it every minute. Probably very soon, perhaps in a year or two but hardly longer, you will see international telephone rates dropping very low to Japan. AT&T's lowest rate now is 16 cents a minute. Soon, it may be forced to drop to maybe a dime a minute. Perhaps even five or six or seven cents a minute. Perhaps even the same as you now pay for your local phone calls to your neighbor over in Newfane or Dummerston. Lower rates and increased use will come quickly.
But the larger and more significant impact will come more slowly. This new cable will lead to many more contacts of all kinds across the Pacific Basin. Surely, it will make it easier for trade and commerce. More business relationships. More tourist travel. It will broaden world markets. Communication on the Internet will open trading possibilities with America for countries like Mongolia. I cite Mongolia as an example because its geographical remoteness has prevented its export of copper, its animal products, its cashmere and wool. Its remoteness has prevented it from receiving modern technology.
There are many Mongolias on the world scene. The Internet, combined with cheap telecommunications as the carrier, will pull them into the circle of world trade. That will be the long term international impact of this new cable. Already, world trade is expanding, will expand more rapidly. The world economy will become more closely enmeshed. If there's a recession in the United States, China will feel it quickly and severely in the form of shrinking exports. And a recession in France will impact the economies of North and Western Africa. All because inexpensive communications has tied many countries together more closely, made them more dependent on each other. That will be the larger consequence of one undersea fiber optic cable.
Today, tens of thousands of foreign students come to America for a university education, especially in fields like medicine, engineering and various branches of science. But that is a very costly experience. Costly for their parents who must pay for it. Costly for the foreign students who are uprooted from their homes. And costly for other countries, because a certain percentage of those American-trained graduates choose never to return home; the Brain Drain. And millions of Americans who need a college education to get a decent job in today's world are finding that tuition has gone beyond reach; a university education has simply become too costly.
Isn't it reasonable to suppose that some people will obtain their college education on the Internet? (Not in brain surgery, I hope). They'll listen to professors and instructors on the Internet, ask questions, get replies, and finally take their exams on the Internet. And not all the greatest universities are in the United States. Suppose Cambridge or Oxford University choose to give a few of their finest courses online? Or the University of Heidelberg? Many universities are scrambling to put their courses, and even offer their degrees, on the Internet. Certainly, technology won't cause Yale and Harvard and Dartmouth to hurt for students in the near future. But many other less distinguished universities will hurt — and perhaps soon. Because the Internet will slash the costs of a college education. It will improve the quality of higher education. It will expand its frontiers. A profound upheaval lies ahead in the economics of higher education.
Now go beyond the immediate impact on the students and universities themselves. What probable impact lies ahead for she larger society? If Internet education drains off students from State universities, church-connected colleges and community colleges, many colleges and universities will have a difficult time to survive this competitive onslaught. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, will collapse financially. So a few courses on the Internet will in the longer term yet unseen, bring profound consequences to our whole society in the whole world.
Here's another example of immediate impact already visible versus unseen but certain bigger consequences that lie in the future. As you know well, L. L. Bean over in Freeport, Maine sells millions of dollars worth of clothing and other items by catalog, over the telephone and on the Internet. Most of such goods would otherwise have been purchased in local stores on the Main Streets and in the shopping malls of the nation. This trend will keep growing, because many people will find it more convenient to buy by phone or computer in the evening or weekends than to go into a crowded store and encounter sales clerks of questionable helpfulness. How many retail stores of all kinds will be driven out of business? Not only on Bond Street in London or the Champs Elysee in Paris, but in every city and town in the world.
You've already seen the banks change. Those big stone buildings, with all the teller windows and the desks out front for the loan officers — they're gone. All over America, and now in Europe and Southeast Asia too. Banks don't need big space on Main Street any more. They open little storefronts with a few ATM machines, and that does the job. Banks can't afford to employ many tellers these days. ATMs do most of the job of taking deposits and giving out cash. And the loan officers? They're mostly gone too. Loan decisions are now based on computer analysis at a central database 'maybe out in South Dakota, where Citibank moved theirs, or on some Caribbean island. The immediate result we're already familiar with — greater convenience.
But a larger impact will soon become visible. In most cities of the world, the two biggest users of storefront space are retail establishments and the banks. Now, both of those categories are shrinking fast. With fewer retail stores and banks, cities will look different.
The sharply reduced real estate demand will reduce property values and cut the tax income of entire cities and towns. Forty years ago, shopping malls destroyed downtown areas. Now we'll see downtown areas converted to residential living' as retailing and banking close down. And municipal governments will struggle to find other sources of tax income. Now, all Internet sales escape sales tax. When more sales go to the Internet, municipalities will lose more tax revenue. The entire financial structure of local government in our country will have to be changed. And if the Federal government collects the Internet tax, inescapably, that will give the Federal government more authority over local government. Who's thinking about that?
Look at the stock market. You're familiar with some of the changes that have already happened, like a 24-hour trading day, online trading, reduced brokerage commissions. The New York Stock Exchange and all the great exchanges in the world, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo. Hong Kong are feeling these things already. London and Frankfurt's answer is to merge. More of that will come. Those exchanges today are very important to society, because they bring together in a highly efficient way, those who have capital to invest, with those who need money to build and modernize. The exchanges thrive because of their honesty and their transparency. Buyers and sellers can see at every moment exactly what's being offered for sale at what price and how much is being bought at what price.
But in between buyer and settler always is the Market Specialist, the person who matches buy and sell orders, for a slight fee, of course. Those are the folks you see in those live TV shots of the Stock Exchange, crowding around the trading floor. All those Market Specialists and yelling men in the commodity trading pits in Chicago simply won't be able to compete with computer systems that soon will match buy and sell orders with an accuracy, efficiency and integrity that the specialists can't equal.
Even as we speak, the computer is eliminating their jobs. And if you don't need people to match buy and sell orders. What do you need a Stock Exchange for? Their days are surely numbered. Give them maybe another two years of life. That isn’t long range forecasting. Looking broadly past the collapse of the Stock Exchanges in their present form, consider that the securities industry is the largest employer in most cities where there is a Stock Exchange.
Inexpensive mass communications, television and the Internet, already have brought the reality of battle into our living rooms. Communications satellites enable the television news services to transmit picture and sound instantly around the world. We have grown accustomed to see bombs falling, pathetic victims, the wounded. Small mobile cameras show us solders in battle. CNN showed our Cruise missiles as they sailed into Baghdad. Reality comes into our homes with immediacy.
But it was not always thus. During World War I, every government conducted massive — and generally successful — censorship operations to conceal its military operations. The horror days of trench warfare tens of thousands of men died at Ypres in Belgium in a few days — could never have happened if the British and French and German publics had been able to see for themselves what was going on.
During the Korean War half a century ago, the technology of news coverage was just beginning to improve. My interest in this subject is quite personal, because in the Fall of 1950, I was Assignment Editor at CBS Television News. When North Korea invaded South Korea, I had sent what probably was the first television crew to cover a war. Their equipment was heavy 16mm cameras, recording sound on film. Those few brave cameramen and soundmen went as far forward toward the battle action as they could go, but that wasn't very far. Mostly, they interviewed officers and men in foxholes before and after battle. It wasn't dramatic; I don't think we showed dead bodies, but nothing of such immediacy and impact had been seen before.
Today, it probably would be impossible to repeat the so-called glory days of 1914 when thousands were willing to volunteer to fight and die "for King and Country." Impossible today because people see for themselves the harsh reality of war. In democratic countries, it appears that the public would be unwilling to accept media censorship. The broader. long-term impact of new news technology will make it much more difficult for governments to enter wars, and perhaps even to conduct peacekeeping operations. Today's pervasive communication makes it much more difficult for governments to gain or retain popular support for wars.
The brutal Russian military campaign in Chechnya was preceded by a brilliant and successful propaganda campaign. The government persuaded Russian citizens that it was necessary to wipe out all those dark-skinned Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. The result has been a civilian death toll and a record of apparent atrocities that would trigger a political revolt in most societies. As The New York Times said, "In Russia it has not. It is because of the way this war has been cast by the Kremlin authors as a test of Russian manhood. if not of the nation's very existence." So far it has worked. Soviet-style propaganda has thus far kept the truth from the Russian people. When it does emerge at some point, maybe a year from now as it surely will, the loss of trust in Prime Minister Putin will make it extremely difficult in the future for any Russian government to undertake military operations of any kind. Similarly, when our own countrymen lost faith in the government's conduct of the Vietnam Wan it altered our national policy right up to the present.
The Russian experience suggests that new communications technology can not halt or even reduce wars. But not many governments can control the media, or lie on such a giant scale as Russia has done, and be believed.
The immediate result of the new technology is to let us see what's really going on. The more basic and more important impact is that if the public in most nations is unwilling to support brutal warfare and large scale killing of its youth, the burden of national defense necessarily will shift to small numbers of highly trained and highly paid volunteers who are willing to do the job. Western Europe is moving in this direction right now, following the path set by the United States Armed Forces after the war in Vietnam.
Another area where we see the impact of technology already is the erosion of national frontiers. Great rivers of people are flowing from places of poverty, hopelessness and joblessness to places where labor is urgently needed.
It's difficult enough, indeed impossible, for immigration officers to check every visitor coming across a border. Governments worldwide face this problem, including the United States. Over in Eastern Michigan, along the St. Clair River, the U.S. Border Patrol has only four officers to patrol 140 miles of coastline between the United States and Canada. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The four Border Patrol officers are good, and very well trained. They catch dozens of illegal immigrants, some of whom have paid smugglers as much as $50,000 to get them inside our Golden Door. But the Border Patrol can't stop the flow entirely. Surely, our government's technology, its tamper-proof passports and its many sensing devices isn't going to be able to halt this flow entirely.
Increased migration will be part of the world scene in the years ahead. Look at Germany, with its thousands of Turkish immigrants. And France, with its Algerians. Spain needs labor and its birth rate is falling: Moroccans need jobs and have none. Seventy thousand Moroccan immigrants are in Spain right now, and the Spanish government is deciding whether to legalize them, and allow them to bring in their families.
But in certain circumstances, a freeing up of communications can deter immigration. Examine India, a country with grinding poverty, but also a nation with great universities. One of these is great University of Mysore, centered in the city of Bangalore. Its thousands of graduates are highly regarded software engineers and computer programmers. Before today's electronic era, even if they had graduated, they might have found no work, and been forced to emigrate to the western world to find professional employment. Today, they have the best of all possible worlds. They live at home in Bangalore. They work in modern high-tech offices during the day, and go to their newly built modern homes at night, with a high salary by Indian scales, and a good salary by world scales. And before they go home, the computer code they wrote this afternoon has already arrived by satellite on the antennas of Texas Instruments in Dallas, and many other distant companies too. It is raising India's living standard. It is keeping Indian science al the front of world technology. And it is reducing costs for companies in the United States. Immediate results: good jobs. Longer term: a modernization of an entire society.
We read almost daily that currency is flowing freely across national borders. It eases the problems of world trade. It is well nigh impossible for governments to control the endless stream of digits, the 0s and the 1s that represent the electronic flow of money across frontiers. What does that portend for the future? The long-term consequences have not yet been appreciated. It’s much more than a loss of government control. It will overthrow governments. Because when a government's policies are seen by its people as irresponsible and dangerous to their life savings, they can and will quickly transfer the money to a safer place. An electronic digital subtraction on one computer: a digital addition to an electronic number on another computer. Surely, that unstoppable flight of capital will bring some governments down in ruins. The citizens won't have to wait until the next election to vote them out of office. The digital transmission of the national assets will do it for them.
Today, businesses can be located anywhere, not just in metropolitan areas, as long as they have access to good communications and transportation. Your customers don't even need to know where you are: it makes no difference to them. I often buy — by telephone, I should mention — from a company called PC Connection. It has an 800 number, so I don't even care where it is located. I buy from them because they promise that if I order before 2 a.m. tonight, they will deliver my purchase to my home anywhere in the USA sometime tomorrow. Saturday. Before this talk tonight. I managed to locate them geographically by finding their address on a catalog. They are on Milford Road, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. They have high-speed data links to a warehouse apparently adjacent to an airport somewhere in Ohio. Their service is better, their prices equal, and the convenience is greater than if I bought from a store down the block from my home in Manhattan. With the growth of the European Union and the European Common Market, many such companies will arise in the EU to offer fierce competition to existing companies and surely the entire European business picture will change.
So you see that the immediate impacts we already are seeing hardly suggest the real consequences that lie ahead. Some countries and some people see the possibilities and welcome change. Others resist it. Nothing new about that. Three years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, the chief engineer of the British Post Office, Sir William Preece, said, "I fancy the descriptions we get of its use in America are a little exaggerated. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys and things of that kind. Few have worked at the telephone much more than I have. I have one in my office, but more for show. If I want to send a message, I use a sounder or employ a boy to take it." Not much short-term or long-term vision there.
And in the earliest days of the automobile, Mercedes Benz asked its experts to analyze and forecast the future demand for cars. Their answer was, the total market for automobiles would be less than one million, because it would be impossible to find or train more than one million chauffeurs. And you'd need a chauffeur, because to drive a horseless carriage would require as much expertise and strength as driving horses.
The same resistance to change, and the same narrowness of vision is present today in most countries of the world, and in most peoples and most cultures. Never mind: fundamental changes will come, Faster than we think, more profound than we can imagine, more unpredictable than were the effects of the railroad, the telephone, or electricity. In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM, said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Even a great visionary such as Mr. Watson couldn't foresee what would happen.
We won't have to wait very long to see a different world. Technology is changing the world, the results showing sooner than we can conceive, pulling the whole world together, closer than Cyrus Field could ever have dreamed when the famous steamship, ''Great Eastern'' dropped his little copper thread underneath the North Atlantic all the way from Newfoundland to Ireland. It's a new world.
Public Opinion Is Decisive
Remarks by Chester Burger, Fellow, PRSA, to the PRSA Foundation Brunch, New York City, November 4, 1990PRSA Foundation Monograph Series, Monday, January 3, 2000
Only about nine years lie between us today and that historic Monday morning, January 3, in the year 2000, when you will go to work for the first time in the new millennium. In the afternoon of my own life, I can't very well be assured of being with you at that turning point, even though my home computer tells me that I will probably live about 19 more years, to about age 89. That would carry me to the year 2010.
Though I won't depend on it, most of you will be there. Most of you will still be working in public relations. You will still be grappling with the difficult problem of influencing public opinion favorably on behalf of your clients or employers. And you wonder, understandably enough, what your professional life will be like, and what you can do now to prepare for it.
“...power flows to those groups and individuals that succeed in developing public support.”
In the year 2000, your role as a professional communicator will be vastly more important in our society than it is today. If you have or can develop the ability to communicate persuasively on behalf of the organization that employs you, your services certainly will be in greater demand than they are today. This is because our society, and much of the rest of the world, is becoming progressively more democratic, and therefore automatically, more contentious. Winston Churchill once said, "Where there is a great deal of free speech, there is always a certain amount of foolish speech." Your organization will need to contend with that. And besides foolish speech, every group speaks out for its own self-interest. This is true today, and it will be more true nine years from now. In such an environment, power flows to those groups and individuals that succeed in developing public support. This is very different from the past when power rested in the hands of those with lots of money and important political, social and business connections.
In the days when Republican and Democratic party bosses controlled and counted the votes, public opinion wasn't nearly so important. The party bosses ran things. In the days when money equaled power, the rich ran things. Once upon a time, it was more important to cultivate the "right" relationships with the few people and the party leaders who decided things. That isn't true any more. Ask the lobbying professionals in Washington who built successful and profitable careers on knowing and having access to the right people. Today, they'll tell you that their political and government contacts mean little unless they can persuade significant sections of public opinion back home to support the position they advocate.
Once corporate managements could run their factories as they saw fit, without interference from sanitary laws, pollution controls, child labor laws, limits on working hours and the like. Today, those days seem as far away as the time of ancient Egypt. With each passing year, public opinion demands higher standards of corporate behavior and higher standards of public behavior from our elected and appointed officials. The old era is gone — not the corruption of the past, but the ability of the corrupt to get away with it forever. Public opinion — surely influenced by the media as it simultaneously influences the media — exerts its force today. By the year 2000, this force will be overwhelming.
When we look ahead to the future to try to foresee the year 2000, we tend to see more — or less — of what already exists. We anticipate progression, or regression, but not radical and fundamental change. We foresee the path to the future as a straight line, whether up, down or across. But that isn't the way life unfolds. Life is discontinuities.
Remember Herman Kahn, the scholar and futurist (as he called himself), the president of the Hudson Institute, who in 1970 wrote a book called "2000." Just one year after his book was published, the Arab oil embargo changed the entire world economy, caused gas shortages all over our country, and began the flow of billions of so-called petro-dollars into the Arab countries. Yet, in Kahn's book, you will discover not a single reference to oil, the Arabs or the Middle East. In 1970, they weren't important. By 1971, they had become very important, as they are again in 1990. Kahn couldn't foresee drastic discontinuities.
And the academic community as well as government officials failed to foresee that Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika would drastically weaken communism not only in the USSR, but equally, in Eastern Europe. They did not see or believe that perestroika would introduce political democracy into the Soviet Union itself. They did not foresee the centrifugal force of nationalism that will tear apart not only the USSR, but many other nations as well, with consequences to us that are not yet foreseeable. They surely did not foresee that the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, as we Americans cheered.
“it won't be terribly important where you work, whether in an urban metropolis or in a small town; whether in your office or in a room newly converted into an office in your home”
So I make predictions knowing the hazards. Change doesn't happen because someone plans it. It won't happen because someone gets a bright idea. Change happens because available technology invariably is put to work to do things that couldn't be done before. We must look at science and technology to see what will change your future and create the world in which you will work in the year 2000.
Today, universal communication, brought about by science and technology, is intensifying the force of democratic life. Didn't Radio Free Europe influence the beginning of political democracy in Eastern Europe? Didn't fax telephones influence the events in Beijing before hope was crushed in Tiananmen Square? Isn't the computer changing the education of young children across our country? Science and technology are causing this.
Today, science and technology signal clearly to us what your work will be like on that Monday morning of January 3, in the year 2000. I will mention three signals that I believe are significant.
First, it won't be terribly important where you work, whether in an urban metropolis or in a small town; whether in your office or in a room newly converted into an office in your home. Developments in the transmission of information will cause this to happen. Today, anything, anywhere can be transmitted inexpensively to anywhere else, whether words, or sounds, or pictures, or data or all in combination. Optical fibers — threads of glass — are now being unrolled like vast superhighways under the oceans from one continent to another, carrying torrents of messages, pictures, videos and data, at less and less cost. A new Trans-Pacific undersea cable will carry six hundred thousand phone calls at once, compared to the 48-call capacity of the first undersea cable that was placed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1956. Dozens of TV channels today come into your home by cable and satellite, compared to the lonely three that broadcast intermittently when I joined CBS Television News in March 1946.
If technology enables you to work as effectively — maybe more so — in your home, it will reduce corporate needs for high-rent space in downtown office buildings. If you work at home, you will reduce the overhead of your employer. The way to get ahead at the office will be not to go into the office and thus, keep down the overhead. As technology eliminates location as a significant factor, corporate overheads and the real estate markets will change fundamentally. Cities will change fundamentally.
Second, repetitious work will disappear. Not just repetitious work in the factory; 30 years ago, automation began to eliminate repetitious factory work. Now, repetitious work will disappear from the office, and from much professional work as well. Developments in the science and technology of memory are bringing this about. Tiny chips under development will store 64 million — not 64 thousand — but 64 million bytes of information on an area the size of your little fingernail. Processors will find the right answers and print them out at unimaginable speeds. The computer, for example, has already changed every profession from legal research to seismic exploration. It has changed the engineering profession. It is changing medical practice, particularly in diagnosis, where it can remember the significance of infinite combinations of symptoms that an ordinary physician could never remember.
The availability of unlimited memory is changing the public relations profession as it has already changed law and medicine. If you work in marketing support or product publicity campaigns, you won't spend time selecting media to match the demographic characteristics of your target audience. You'll tell your desktop computer whom you want to reach, and your computer memory will make the selection with a precision not now possible. The folks at Lotus in Cambridge, MA, already are selling inconceivably large masses of information encoded on optical disks. You buy not just the disk, but the keys to extracting the particular categories and specifications you wish, at so much per 5,000 items of information.
After you have approved your computer-selected media list, your computer memory will call up whatever information you wish to communicate to the media. It will be edited automatically to fit the special interest of each newspaper, magazine or broadcast outlet, according to general instructions you have previously placed in memory. Then it will send out your information, probably in computer-readable digital form. Postal service and bicycle messenger services are fading away as postal rates and messenger charges climb. By Monday morning, January 3 in the year 2000, you probably won't be able to recall when you last mailed a letter or relied on a bicycle messenger in the city.
Third, communications will be directed to more specific and sharply identified audiences. The mass media will have fragmented, fading away possibly to the point of extinction. Advances in computer memory and in the techniques of reproduction are making this happen. Today, copying machines are everywhere, and every amateur and would-be editor who has something to say to others uses desktop publishing. By the year 2000, two technologies — the computer and the copier — will have fused into one. The new Xerox Document Machine is leading the way.
Computers remember masses of data about who we are, what interests us, how we live and what we buy. This will make it easier for those who want to communicate with us. They won't waste their circulation or their money on getting their messages to people who aren't interested. Examine the 100 different current editions of Timemagazine. Granted, today they differ only in advertising, not in editorial content. But for how long? Examine The American Baby, whose computers tell its printing presses what articles to include in your copy of this month's issue, depending on whether your baby was born this month, three months ago or six months ago. These examples point the way to what will be commonplace at the beginning of the millennium: the withering away of the general or mass media, and the development of highly specialized, highly targeted magazines, newspapers and broadcasting stations.
“...those who are skilled at communicating...will surely have their work cut out for them in the years ahead.”
By the year 2000, optical computers will have intensified this trend beyond what is now possible for us to foresee. Photons instead of electrons will be widely used, not only for the transmission of information but for processing it in computers. The AT&T Bell Laboratories have invented a way to manufacture and place two million lasers on a chip the size of your fingernail. How can we foretell the impact of light waves instead of electricity?
The consequences of scientific development can rarely be foreseen. For example, the transistor, surely the most important invention of the 20th century, was initially seen simply as something that would eliminate vacuum tubes from radios and telephone switching equipment. That's the way The New York Times first reported it. Who could have foreseen that the transistor would first make practical the computer, and that in turn, the computer would bring about space travel?
It is science and technology that have encouraged the development of democracy, ever since the Industrial Revolution. Science and technology today are strengthening our ability to communicate. For this reason, science and technology offer positive hope of strengthening democracy. Democracy is a process, not a solution. It doesn't solve the problems of society. It is superior to all forms of dictatorship primarily because it provides an orderly process for people to express their views openly, and then hope their elected officials will be able to reach a compromise in an effort to find the best answers to their problems.
In our own country today, it is fair to say that democracy has reached the highest level yet known in any modern society. Everyone speaks out. Everyone is listened to. Everyone who chooses to speak out influences decisions. And the result all too often is a deadlock. No wonder Winston Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others."
Look at the abortion issue. The conflict can be summed up in the catchphrases "pro-life" and "pro-choice." This issue has divided our country with an intensity perhaps not seen since the days when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the issue of slavery on political, moral, economic and religious grounds. That issue tore apart the nation. But not all the issues dividing our nation are as big or perhaps as important.
To cite one example that confronts us today, thousands of the mentally ill are living homeless in the streets. Some people of goodwill say that the government should have no right to take them off the streets and place them in hospitals or mental institutions for treatment, because they threaten no one but themselves. Others say that simple humanity and their desperate need for help should require their removal to places of treatment, whether or not they wish it. The issue is deadlocked. Public opinion has not yet crystallized.
Let me cite a minor conflict involving the telephone companies, in which I was involved for 33 years of my life and, therefore, have a particular interest. The state of Pennsylvania has prohibited a new telephone service that automatically shows the number or name of the person who is phoning you the instant your phone begins ringing. Some civil liberties advocates say this violates the privacy of the person calling you. So Pennsylvanians are not permitted to buy this service. But across the river in New Jersey, the Public Utilities Commission has approved it, on the basis that you have just as much right to know who is phoning you as to know who is ringing your doorbell before you open the door. As a result, in New Jersey, obscene and threatening phone calls have decreased sharply. The right of the caller's privacy conflicts with your right to identify who is calling you. In many states, the public utilities commissions are divided over this issue.
I cite these as representative of the great number of issues, large and small, facing our country that are unresolved because public opinion either is too sharply divided or as yet unformed. How these and other issues are finally resolved will affect all of corporate and organizational America.
One common factor encompasses all these difficult problems: ultimately, they will be decided by public opinion. Not by some president's or dictator's opinion, but by public opinion. As democracy has flourished, both in our country and in the world, the opinions of ordinary people have become decisive. Yet many folks don't believe their opinions are important. A majority of eligible citizens often don't even bother to vote because they've lost faith that their vote makes any difference on important issues.
People have become cynical and distrustful that their leaders can or will resolve contentious issues. Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) once said in a moment of frustration that Congress in one session had managed to do hardly more than proclaim National Peach Month. In addition to a widespread sense of futility, millions of people see that leaders in every part of our society lie regularly — business leaders, labor union leaders, religious personalities, trade association officials, elected officials and so-called community leaders. The credibility problem of any communicator is immense.
So it seems inescapable that those who are skilled at communicating — those who know how to identify the right channels of communication to reach those who are important to them; those who use research to identify and understand the underlying currents of public opinion; those who know how to present their case most persuasively and credibly — will surely have their work cut out for them in the years ahead.
I believe that the public relations professional who begins work that morning of January 3 in the year 2000 will be vastly more important than she or he is now. This is because public relations professionals will be more skilled at influencing public opinion than we are today, and because public opinion will be even more decisive in influencing corporate and public policy than it is today.
We all love to talk about the blessings of democracy. And we are right in doing so. The opposite of a democratic society is one in which someone, whether a king, or a dictator, or a despot or a religious official who believes he is acting on behalf of the Deity, orders us and compels us to do things we might not wish to do. Whether the king, or dictator, or despot or religious official is right or wrong, we have no voice in the matter.
Public opinion develops, changes and crystallizes very slowly. In the case of the communists, it took 70 years for the Soviet people to say, "Enough'" For the bungling King Louis XVI, the French Revolution ignited in the 15th year of his reign. Martin Luther meditated for 12 years before he nailed his Theses to the church door at Wittenberg and began the Reformation. Public opinion very rarely changes overnight.
There was a wise public relations professional who understood this. He was the very first corporate public relations officer, incidentally — Arthur W. Page, vice president of AT&T, who in his retirement years, was asked by Walter Straley, one of his successors, "How do we keep out of trouble with our critics in government?" Mr. Page replied:
"A business of our size will always have critics in and out of government. We should expect to defend ourselves from time to time, as best we can. But if we want our enterprise to live for a very long time, we must decide what kind of changes we will need to make in our business over coming years. Then if our future depends, as surely it will, on permission and approval of government bodies, we must ourselves devise the laws and regulations we believe to be in the public interest with respect to our enterprise. We must place them before government people and public leaders, and make clear why those laws or modifications are in the public interest. And listen to this: we should let the strength of our ideas lobby for us."
"This is the slow way to do it. But it is the way to keep our system alive. Government people are not our enemies. They are as interested in what is best for the public as we are. When we recommend laws, they are naturally suspicious. But if we devise and present good ideas and sound specifics, a few people will take them up, or perhaps pieces of them, and in time, politicians will even use our ideas to become re-elected."
"And after five years, or 10 years or even 20 years, some of what we want to happen, if not most of what we want to happen, will happen. We must do our most important planning before the public knows what it wants. By the time it makes up its mind, we are too late."
Arthur W. Page's message has a special meaning for us today. Nine years from now, you will be going to work on Monday morning, January 3, 2000. Today is the day public relations professionals should begin planning to deal with the problems of public opinion that surely will determine the survival of each of our organizations.
Today — November 4, 1990 — isn't one day too late to begin.
New York Civic Leader Earns Highest Air Force Public Service Award
By Staff Sgt. Vanessa Young, Defense Media Activity-San Antonio
Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley presented Chester Burger the Distinguished Public Service Award for his 15 years of volunteer service as an Air Force advocate under the Public Affairs Advisory Group in New York City.
"You have strengthened local and national support for vital Air Force programs, strategies and missions," Secretary Donley said to Mr. Burger while presenting him the award. "Bringing together New York City's brightest public relations' minds provided unparalleled advice and counsel to former Air Force secretaries. Thank you for your dedication and all that you have done for the Air Force."
Mr. Burger is a World War II veteran, the nation's first TV news reporter, the president of the nation's first communications management consulting firm, and he worked for more than 50 years as a public relations professional, educator and consultant. For the past 15 years, his goal has been to get public relations professionals from New York City to help tell the Air Force story and help Air Force leaders shape their communication strategies.
"You have strengthened local and national support for vital Air Force programs, strategies and missions"
—Secretary Donley to Mr. Burger while presenting him the award.
"The prevailing attitude 15 years ago was that New York was just marginal to the Pentagon and the Beltway. What we tried to do most of all was to convince Air Force leaders that New York City was the media capital of the country," Mr. Burger said. "It was terribly important not just to have Air Force ceremonies and parades, but also to cultivate relationships with the key people in New York so they would understand the responsibilities the Air Force and what it was doing for the national defense.
"I think it's hard for people in the service to realize how isolated the military is from the civilian community," he said. "For instance, there is no military base in New York City, the result is if you are a civilian in New York, you don't know anyone from the military. There's no base nearby, and there's no sense of who (military members) are, what they are doing, what their burdens are, or the sacrifices they are making."
This week, during first Air Force Week New York City, Airmen are engaging members of the local community through volunteer events, concerts and exhibits to educate them on Air Force life and showcase the Air Force's capabilities.
During this week, New York citizens will learn about the "training and the responsibility" that Mr. Burger said he admires so much.
"I had an incident a couple of years ago, when a general said to me, 'You see that plane over there, that's mine,' It cost I don't know how many millions of dollars," Mr. Burger said. "Then (the general) said, '...you see that kid over there, 25-years old, he takes care of it for me. I don't worry about it. I know it's going to be done right, 100 percent right. I never worry.' You wouldn't find that in civilian life. You wouldn't find first of all a 25-year-old with that kind of life and death responsibility, and you wouldn't find somebody knowing that it's going to be done right 100 percent of the time. That's the wonderful thing about the Air Force."
"There is nobody that I met in my long life, and I'm about to be 90, that has the sense of responsibility, public service, and real integrity and meaning than the folks I've worked with in the Air Force and what a rich experience that has been," he added.
Chester Burger Remembered
Jim Arnold pays tribute to his former mentor, colleague and friend Chester Burger, known as a counselor's counselor.
Holmes Report, March 27, 2011